Michael Wanzie's latest paean to down-market diva-hood marks the first time the prolific playwright/actor has shared a stage with three of his most pedigreed co-conspirators Doug Ba'aser, Tommy Wooten and Sam "Miss Sammy" Singhaus all at once. With that factoid drummed into your cranium, watching the show seems like being in the presence of a kind of Justice League of Drag, or maybe tuning into one of those overkill-addicted Toho monster flicks in which Godzilla had to battle for screen time with Rodan, Gamera and Ghidrah. How will the world survive?
On the surface, Ladies of Eola Heights is indeed as indebted to wretched excess as any Wanzie play (though not any four of them). The laughs are loud and deserved from the moment Ms. Ruby Locksdale (Wooten) enters a stage that's been crapped up in emulation of the ground floor of a family home in downtown Orlando. The place is jammed with merchandise purchased from home-shopping services, and Ruby is just as much of a sight: an explosion of red curls, gold jewelry and kinky boots. In from Atlanta to attend her pappy's funeral, she's soon screeching out a reunion with the lady of the house her sister, Pearl (Wanzie), a disabled good-time gal who punctuates her wheezy laughter with hits of oxygen from a handy mask and keeps bumping into the furniture with her HoverRound electric wheelchair.
Real Southern grotesques, right? A pair of Flannery O'Connor specials? Maybe, but the arrival of a third sister, Buckhead resident Opal (Ba'aser), lays hints that Wanzie the playwright is after something gentler. Opal, who bears more than a passing similarity to Bea Arthur in a crucifix, is a churchgoing straight arrow who has turned her back on the hooch-before-noon lifestyle represented by her jeering sibs. Though Opal's haughtiness affords several good jokes at her expense, we get the impression that the sisterly ribbing we're overhearing hides a shared history of substantial shame and tragedy. Ruby missed her Boone High School prom due to a scandal that's still a hot topic of neighborhood discussion, and that's not the end of the ignominies the Locksdale ladies have weathered. Let's just say that Dad was no saint either.
Wanzie has a genuine concern for these characters, and it underlies even the story's most bizarre conceits like the repeated intrusions of Singhaus, whose role as a controversial resident of the Locksdale home has him swanning onto the set in a series of incongruously fabulous outfits while lip-synching vintage Streisand hits and other mid-'60s kitsch. It's a bald-faced attempt to work Singhaus' standard act into a Wanzie play, and the explanation for it is breathtaking in its lunatic contrivance. Yet like the rest of the play, these camp interludes are headed toward a place of tenderness. You'll never hear "People" the same way again.
All four actors are ideally suited to the material. Wooten has a way with a Southern-fried put-down that's unequaled locally, and Ba'aser performs the particularly difficult job of making Opal dowdy yet never dismissible. Ba'aser's two-year break from performing alongside Wanzie hasn't cleared up his semi-notorious troubles with line memorization. But that curious professional attribute was more fun than calamitous on opening night, thanks to quick ad-libbing and the availability of liquor bottles as onstage props.
The tumble from bewigged bitchery into "serious" content is jarring at first like stumbling onto one of the Lifetime original movies Pearl references at one point. By play's end, though, Ladies of Eola Heights becomes a strangely satisfying saga of female empowerment that had us counting similarities to The Hours, of all things. Elsewhere at our table, comparisons were floated to A Thousand Acres and its antecedent, King Lear. These Wanzie shows are drawing an ever more erudite audience, and I'm sure the author would approve no matter what Ruby's old gang at Boone H.S. might have to say about it.