When Heck Was a Puppy: The Living Testimonies of Folk Artist Edna Mae Brice | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

When Heck Was a Puppy: The Living Testimonies of Folk Artist Edna Mae Brice 

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WHEN HECK WAS A PUPPY: THE LIVING TESTIMONIES OF FOLK ARTIST EDNA MAE BRICE

Tellin' Tales Theater

at Blue Rider Theatre

"Want one?" asks actress-writer Tekki Lomnicki, playing fictional folk artist Edna Mae Brice, as she digs deep in her handmade, multicolored, beribboned tote bag and pulls out single-serving cheese and cracker packages. She hands them to a woman in the front row at the Blue Rider Theatre, who passes them back as Lomnicki continues her monologue. She also gives her audience cups of cranberry juice and napkins decorated with floral and animal Magic Marker designs created by real-life folk artist Anna Mercier.

When Heck Was a Puppy--written by Lomnicki, Michael Blackwell, and Nancy Neven Shelton, based on a compilation of life stories by Lomnicki, Mercier, and other southern folk artists--is a curious, at moments magical play that feels more like an extended performance monologue. In it Lomnicki also plays a game called Jumbled Up Geography and spontaneously asks audience members questions ("If you could be an animal, what would you like to be?"). All Lomnicki's devices give Brice's story urgency and immediacy.

Edna Mae Brice's story unfolds during a bus ride to New Orleans that we seem to share with her. An initially provocative figure, unexpectedly tiny, with an attractive, kind face, sparkling eyes, flawlessly coiffed hair, and a rather mincing style, Brice tells us she's on her way to visit her daughter, a nurse. Yet she keeps mentioning a wedding that she cannot or will not attend. And while she discusses where she is and isn't going, her life story unfolds in bits and pieces, revealing the prejudice that was directed against her because of her size.

The telling is aided by Larry Wilson, who plays her mother, her stepfather, one of her husbands, and a cousin, each distinguished by a different mask (skillfully constructed and designed by Matthew Wycislak). The masks make the characters abstract, so that they seem to rise out of Brice's fantasy life or memory. Problematic was Wilson's mother, one of the more complex characters, who seemed merely witchy and cruel. One wanted more dimension; her hold on Brice's memory needed clarifying. More successful was his portrayal of Taylor, Brice's second husband, a charming ne'er-do-well who promptly disappeared after they were married.

When Heck Was a Puppy is about a woman who was ostracized because of her size. Yet curiously the prejudice she has experienced is incidental to the real issues in her life, which have more to do with her finding a way to live without the crippling fear and mistrust generated by the memory of this prejudice. The lesson here seems to be that when one addresses a handicap that grips one's mind the handicap loses its hold on the personality.

Brice's courageous spirit, her kindness, her love of her art, and her innocence are what save her over and over. Yet she's not without failings--she likes to exaggerate, even lie a little, character flaws that give her dimension and keep her from becoming saccharine. Still, one hungers for just a little more of her dark side.

Katherine Ross's gorgeous, dramatic set has transparent strips of fabric hanging from dowels and a swirl of whimsical trompe l'oeil paintings on the floor that resemble water. Passenger seats define a bus at center stage, with a small pulpit on one side and a small bentwood rocking chair on the other. Brice's monologue is also illustrated with music and black-and-white slides projected through the bus window.

This play is a little find. Like the folk art on which it's based, it's whimsical, irreverent, a little sweet. Sometimes it's also a bit rough-and-ready, almost prosaic. Yet it's a story that seems quintessentially provincial, authentic, American.

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