"Previously on Ladies of Eola Heights," runs the video preamble to Michael Wanzie's latest stage comedy, simultaneously inaugurating a handy 10-minute recap of past hilarities and announcing that we're about to witness the second episode of the greatest sitcom Norman Lear never created. Having used the smash success Ladies of Eola Heights to establish an uneasy peace between his Locksdale sisters Ruby, Pearl and Opal playwright Wanzie opens up their world a bit wider to facilitate yet another familial identity crisis. And it's one that Archie Bunker himself couldn't have made funnier or more poignant.
The relative calm of Ladies' conclusion in which the once-disgraced Ruby (Tommy Wooten) got to attend an all-important school reunion in the company of her kindly brother, Jackson (Miss Sammy) has proved less enduring than Ruby's hangover. Conservative Opal (the singularly monikered Doug) is holding to her promise not to reconcile with her hated husband and offspring, instead devoting her energies to determining that Jackson has been "cured" of the in-home transvestism that has him breaking out in elaborate lip-sync routines at the strangest moments. But that controversy pales (so to speak) in comparison to the one that they and sibling Pearl (Wanzie) are about to face: a visit from a half-sister none of them knew existed. The part of the long-lost Onyx is played by Darcel Stevens, and anyone who knows "her" from her Parliament House drag revues knows that the issue here is one of melanin.
It's a classic confrontation, and Wanzie's script milks it for all it's worth, catering to the abilities of his excellent cast. Acting novice Stevens makes a fine showing as a scarlet-clad, weed-smoking debutante whose very existence is a big surprise to the bigoted Opal; Doug, who was simply on fire on opening night, is one of the best reaction men in local theater. Wanzie holds up his end of the performance with a looong take of incredulity that outlasts most of the monologues. Sammy is again a figure of glamorous pathos (or is it pathetic glamour?), and the uproariously sassy Wooten shows that he can keep an audience at rapt attention even when all he's doing is feigning one end of a phone conversation.
The boozy bitchery and PH in-jokes are legion, but like its predecessor, the play is ultimately characterized by its gentleness and generosity: With Onyx's help, the Locksdales learn some complex truths about the daddy they thought they hated. Why settle for camp villainy when healing is possible? In the Height of Wanzie's imagination, everyone is fair game for ridicule because everyone is forgivable. That's the best kind of comedy, and it's one this playwright has truly mastered.
After the Prom: Ladies of Eola Heights Part 2
Through March 18
Footlight Theater, The Parliament House