Roy, the character at the heart of James McLure's 1959 Pink Thunderbird, is a Viet Nam veteran with more than a touch of rebellion in his heart. He loves his Lone Star beer, his home state of Texas, and his wife, even though he sometimes disappears for days for a no-questions-asked assignation. As played by Matt Koester in In Tandem's Theatre's new production, he's a devilishly handsome, hootin' and hollerin' good old boy who literally shakes the theater's foundations when he stomps around the stage. As his wife Elizabeth says--played by Libby Amato staring toward the horizon with palpable longing--"Roy is the last wild thing left around here."
Even though we never see Roy and Elizabeth lock eyes or lips (Thunderbird is written as two one act plays--the guys and gals in their separate spheres), we know their world, and this is one of McLure's great achievements here. It doesn't hurt that they remind us so much of Stanley and Stella Kowalski, who surely haunted McLure when he grew up in Louisiana. We can imagine the way they thrash together a shared life, in their frequent arguments as well as in the bedroom.
But in Thunderbird, Roy--not Blanche, a visiting sister-in-law--is the one who lives in the past. And it's easy to understand why. The characters' lives here are defined by small-town gossip and tedium, made all the more unbearable by the hazy Texas heat. In the first play, Laundry and Bourbon, Elizabeth and Hattie chat on a sun-drenched back porch while they drink and fold. Hattie (Lindsey Gaglano) is a boisterous and no-nonsense mother of several unruly kids ("no-neck monsters" Tennessee Williams would call them), who is catching a rare bit of “me time” while the brood is at grandmas. They are visited by Amy Lee (Mary McLellan), the town snoot who frequents the country club and is very concerned with saving the souls of African children, via her church’s Baptist missionaries. Cattiness runs rampant, and the simple tawdriness of it all prompts Elizabeth (in a gently searching performance by Amato) to wonder about the future.
Meanwhile, in Lone Star, Roy has perched himself behind a honky-tonk with a case of Lone Star and a box of junk food, holding forth with stories about Viet Nam and his adventurous youth, most of which revolved around that pink Thunderbird. His drinking buddy, Ray (Rob Maass), is a dim and often hilarious foil. But the fireworks really get started when Amy Lee’s milquetoast husband, Cletis (Matt Zembrowski), stops by for a visit.
It’s a classic American story, with characters fueled by nostalgia, restlessness, and that niggling voice that reminds us that there’s something more to life than, well, Lone Star and laundry (the Hank Williams and other country songs we hear capture the mood perfectly). In Tandem splits the directing duties--Jane Flieller directs Bourbon, Chris Flieller directs Lone Star—and they each balance the larger-than-life comedy with McLure’s more introspective moments. It’s a lovely valedictory, of sorts, to McLure, who died in 2011—a vision of American Dreaming that’s ever colored with disappointment but still leavened by a good laugh with lifelong companions.
Photos by Mark Frohna. Mary McLellan and Libby Amato. Matt Koester and Rob Maass.