"My grandpa taught me to trust my heart, despite the questions of others," Laura Force Scruggs tells us toward the end of Punk Grandpa (don't worry, that's not a spoiler), her one-woman show about her beloved grandfather. Grandpa was a free-wheeling kind of guy, a joker, a prankster, the life of the party with only three teeth and a penchant for baring them at people to get a laugh. And for 5-and-three-quarters-year-old Laura, a wound-up kid who could make herself literally ill over how much syrup she poured on her pancake or whether her bed was made properly, he was exactly the grandpa she needed.
Punk Grandpa weaves Laura's memories of her childhood around the events of a weekend she spent with her grandparents, during which she and gramps got up to some hilarious (to a 5-year-old) hijinks, including: Grandpa catcalling ladies on the sidewalk ("You can really wear that sweater!!") while driving to the bank; conning an umbrella out of the lost-and-found when it starts raining outside ("Did anyone turn in a black umbrella?"); and gunning the car up onto the sidewalk to scare the crap out of some kids riding alongside them (and hiding when the cops show up after one kid tells his parents). Now, as Scruggs relates these various activities, along with some of Grandpa's witticisms ("That'll put hair on your chest"; "Don't take any wooden nickels") you or I might think Grandpa sounds like, well, kind of a dick. But when a 5-year-old hears that wooden nickel gag or witnesses the umbrella bit for the first time -- when a kid realizes you don't have to follow the rules all the time -- it's magical.
It's an evergreen film plot, the wide-eyed, tight-wound youngster entranced with a devil-may-care elder (Big Fish, My Favorite Year), but that plot generally illustrates the dawning of maturity, as hero worship gives way to disillusionment and then a more nuanced acceptance. No such nuances here, though. Scruggs seems still to be that wide-eyed kid, still as enchanted by her grandpa's assertion that a plateful of Mrs. Butterworth's will put hair on her chest as when she was 5. Maybe that's because her grandpa eventually died of Alzheimer's; grief can freeze a past moment in a perfectly rosy hue. Unfortunately the staging and performance aspects of Punk Grandpa are also more suited to kids than for adult sensibilities. Scruggs stomps and bellows, skips and sing-songs, in a manner I haven't seen since kindergarten story time. Her exaggerated movements (for instance, what seems like a fairly neutral statement of fact is met by a full-body flinch/cower) and vocalizations would not seem out of place in a children's theater, but are just too shouty for a grown-up. A bright spot, however, is the climax of the show – when Scruggs dons a mitten adorned with a photo of her grandpa and waltzes around the stage for one last dance with her beloved and much-missed relative, only a stone could remain unmoved.
And this is where Fringe reviewing gets sticky. It's one thing to have cavils with the production of a show, but it's another to piss all over someone's deeply felt personal emotions. And it seems particularly mean-spirited when all the profits from this show are going to the Orlando branch of the Alzheimer's association. But despite Scruggs' obvious love and gratitude for her Punk Grandpa, this show may best please an audience of an age to squirm with glee at the idea of a grownup making scandalous jokes about sweater bumps.