By Perry Tannenbaum
Life on the prairie in small towns is pretty much how Garrison Keillor has been describing it for so long on NPR, except in university towns scattered across the Midwest and the occasional religious enclave. I sampled both during my sojourn at the U of Iowa in Iowa City, visiting the nearby Amana Colonies on a couple of boring weekends. Breaking the monotony of one of my drives back from a winter break, I also took a tip from my mom and looked in on the Amish in Pennsylvania.
Those humble years in America’s heartland came back vividly last week as I watched The Book of Liz, the second piece that Donna Scott Productions has performed at the Charlotte Art League. If you’re familiar with the other pranks by the playwriting siblings who conspired on this script in 2001, Amy and David Sedaris, you’ll readily guess that laughter far outweighed my nostalgia.
A stern ascetic strain is readily apparent in the Sedarises’ portrait of the Squeamish who live in the seclusion of Clusterhaven. Yet the script steers deftly around religion, aiming its satire primarily at the stodgy sexist patriarchs who rule the colony and their absorption with Clusterhaven’s prime product: cheese balls, traditional or smoky.
Both varieties of the colony-sustaining cheese balls are crafted by Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, following her own secret recipes. Reverend Tollhouse doesn’t seem to appreciate Liz’s kitchen artistry, and when young Brother Brightbee arrives in town, he sternly decrees that Liz hand over the cheese ball recipes – and all of the manufacturing responsibilities – to the sparkish newcomer. Already suffering from a profuse sweating problem, the redeployment sends Liz into crisis. She not only leaves the recipes behind in the community kitchen, she abandons the colony entirely and sets off into the real world.
The odyssey that follows is as circumscribed as Liz’s experience, education, and audacity. Even if she doesn’t get as far as Chicago – or even the Quad Cities! – we see the outside world, its zaniness and insularity, colored through the lens of Liz’s inner purity. It’s a picaresque journey or a bifocal satire; take your pick.
On the road, the first person she runs into is dressed as a Planter’s Peanut, trying to offer samples to passing motorists. We instantly get the idea that Liz’s adventure will juxtapose her with an outré character or two, and Oxana, the woman inside the ginormous peanut shell doesn’t disappoint us even when she sheds her costume, a Ukrainian immigrant with an English accent dwelling in a trailer with husband Yvone.
Thanks to Liz’s innate kindness, both women soon find new jobs. The situation – and the costumes – are slightly less outrageous as Liz comes to work at Plymouth Crock, a Pilgrim-themed restaurant that just might be trading off the proximity and cachet of Clusterhaven. Purposely or not, Liz’s new world resembles her old world in the way Oz resembled Kansas, and so does its effect.
Any temptation to take all this too seriously is quickly defused by director Glynnis O’Donoghue and her mischievous cast. Costumer Luci Wilson spares all expense in outfitting Reverend Tollhouse and Brother Brightbee with their beards, attaching them with crude elastic. The Pilgrim finery at the restaurant and Oxana’s peanut shell provide additional roasting as we move along.
Matthew Corbett begins double-underlining Rev Tollhouse’s starchiness and pomposity before anyone joins him onstage, offering some oddly phrased praises to his savior as he prays. A mercifully inserted blackout sweeps us along to the 38th of these “compliments” before Liz enters, with Tonya Bludsworth double-underlining her naïveté and her squirming diffidence from the outset. With Corbett’s imposing size, they’re instantly feeding off one another in a comedy symbiosis that dates back to Laurel & Hardy.
All isn’t quite as the Sedarises intended. Field Cantey enters with a perfectly calibrated excess of self-regard as Brother Brightbee, but it is Scott as Sister Butterworth, Liz’s associate, who is salivating in a subsequent scene at the very thought of seeing the heralded newcomer. Scott is also dialed in, since nasty, petty busybodies are her longtime specialties. What’s curious is the lack of reaction from Liz, a more natural indifference from our heroine if she were 20 years older than Bludsworth, as the playwrights prescribed – but this age misalignment only becomes glaring in the Act 2 denouement.
Corbett, Cantey, and Scott all reappear in multiple guises after Liz flees Clusterhaven, their slipshod costume changes adding further fizz to the story – but not before we come upon Tania Kelly, clearly the ideal nut topping for this cheese ball comedy. I’ve been raving about Kelly’s comedy prowess for nearly eight years, and she still never fails to delight and surprise. Here she makes up for her tardy arrival by taking on four varied roles.
During her travels, we wonder if Liz will find a cure for her sweating disorder – and whether reconciliation at Clusterhaven and appreciation from the Squeamish will be possible. The resolution isn’t likely to be exactly as you imagine, which is why you’ll probably be happy to find that the whole story turns out to be very much like a secret recipe revealed.