Sweet Dreams 

Memphis theaters heap praise on Patsy Cline, excellent washing machines, and ordinary women.

Honky Tonk Angel: Patsy Cline's back at Circuit Playhouse.

A few years back, I reviewed a production of A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, a repeat offender (or "favorite," if you will) at the Playhouse on the Square family of theaters. The column was titled "Dollywood, in Bad Decline," and it bemoaned the show's crass commerciality, syrupy sentimentality, and complete inability to capture the spirit of a famously spirited personality -- trotting out all the hits and a handful of biographical facts while generally ignoring the drama of Cline's short, often turbulent life. It's the sort of thing that could, and certainly should, run forever. In Branson. Entertaining? Absolutely. But don't expect content that you couldn't get cheaper from a decent jukebox. That said, Circuit's production does have something going for it that the last two Memphis productions didn't: Carla McDonald in the role of Patsy Cline. It's a role the big-voiced McDonald has needed to play for a long time. From the raunchy growls to the broken notes, she has all the vocal skills to channel Cline's distinctive style. If you close your eyes, you might just be fooled.

In addition to the magnificent McDonald, Circuit's production has one of the best and certainly one of the tightest bands to appear on a Memphis stage. Having Memphis' own trad-country hero Eric Lewis chiming in on pedal steel, mandolin, and fiddle gives the production a lot of street cred, and Ernie Scarborough's dead-on recreation of Cline pianist Floyd Cramer's spare but sophisticated sound goes a long way toward keeping things real. Throw in a tight harmony quartet (standing in for the inimitable Jordanaires) and you get a polished but authentic country sound that would sound as good in a smoky honky tonk as it does on the stage.

Michael Duggan makes some mighty old jokes brand-new again in his various turns as a hayseed clown, slick Vegas comic, and simple country deejay.

Interested parties should probably make reservations ASAP as the show was selling out in its first weekend, and Circuit is tiny.

A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline is at Circuit Playhouse through February 16th.

Lives of the Saints: An Evening with David Ives is wacky, but that's not enough.

With a few notable exceptions, the short plays collected under the title An Evening with David Ives rely heavily on bad puns and the less than ground-breaking theory that tired clichés may be revitalized as satire. We are treated to moderately successful (if generally overacted) spoofs of everything from psychoanalysis to Agatha Christie mysteries. The author often aims at Ionesco territory, but too often the material resembles an outtake from Whose Line Is It Anyway? Ives' "Captive Audience," a short depicting the most frequently (and easily) vilified household appliance, the television set, as a two-headed monster hell-bent on world domination seems to be nothing more than a literal dramatization of Frank Zappa's 30-year-old alterna-anthem "Slime." "Soap Opera" cleverly assays the Oedipal urges of a man who, having been raised by an obsessively clean mother, has fallen tragically in love with a top-of-the-line washing machine. But this smart notion quickly devolves into a parade of sight gags, and for all its brevity, "Soap Opera" is entirely too long.

None of the pieces in An Evening with David Ives comes close to matching the fearless whimsy of the author's breakthrough collection All in the Timing, though one vignette, "Lives of the Saints," transcends anything the author has written to date. It's a lovely bit of metatheater-lite, like Samuel Beckett writing for Mad TV. In it, two decrepit old women preparing pirogies and Jell-O for a funeral breakfast receive their beatification. It's a self-explaining magic trick that still manages to mystify.

The remainder of the cast could take a lesson in restraint from Laurie Cook McIntosh, Renee Davis, Keith Salter, and Kianné Nicole who negotiate Ives' material like pros, going over the top without ever becoming larger than life.

An Evening with David Ives is at Theatre Memphis' Next Stage through January 25th.

Talk Talk: Talking With is a simple, if academic, pleasure at TheatreWorks.

It looks like Jane Martin's Talking With, originally presented over two decades ago, will stand the test of time. This collection of monologues has aged, but gracefully, and only its overly academic style continues to frustrate.

The piece begins with a jaded actress bemoaning a certain inequity: She knows nothing about an audience that knows so very much about her. "Who are you?" is, of course, the question Talking With hopes to answer.

The characters in Talking With range from the commonest folk to eccentrics and certifiable nutjobs. By play's end, the author has rendered a portrait of femininity that is as strong as it is ephemeral.

Mary Hollis Inboden is especially convincing as a cowgirl who has lost faith in the newly corporate rodeo. Shani Alexander is chilling as a sweet young snake handler falling out of the spirit, and Kim Justis (pulling a few familiar tricks from her bag) is positively psychotic as an actress so desperate for a role she's willing to murder a kitty. Angela Groeschen channels the spirit of Tonya Harding in her bizarre account of life as an acolyte to the god of baton twirling.

In 1981, tattooed ladies weren't quite as common as they are today, and there was something almost shocking about "Marks," the play's closing monologue about a woman who wears her life on her skin. Though perhaps less exotic than it once was, the monologue still hits its marks and summarizes the evening in a fashion that is as dramatic as it is pedantic. Leah Bray Nichols plays it bland and with surprisingly effective results.

Talking With is at TheatreWorks through January 26th.

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