Love Him Tender
As strains of "Can't Help Falling in Love" waft through the smoke-tinged air of the Mercury Cafe, a young woman haltingly enters the local establishment's Jungle Room and takes up residence in one of its remote corners. Her oddly vacant eyes darting to and fro, Rootie (Elizabeth Rose) stuffs a newspaper up the front of her mini-dress, kneels on the ground for a brief moment of silent prayer and waits expectantly. Soon an older woman sweeps into view, carrying a tent, cooler and lawn chair and dressed in a sleeveless jumpsuit with the curly, plastic locks of a blond wig cascading down her shoulders. Bev (Kathryn Ellinger) promptly decamps on a small platform that represents the front lawn of Elvis Presley's fabled Tennessee mansion.
So begins Ellen Byron's one-act comedy-drama, Graceland, which is being presented on weekend afternoons at the Mercury in an open-ended run. More than just a memory play about two women waiting in line for the 1982 opening of Presley's estate, the engaging 45-minute drama chronicles the impromptu exchange of soulful feeling between two kindred, damaged spirits. Under the capable direction of Craig Osterberg, the touching play is likely to resonate with audience members long after the zany characters finish trading their Presley-inspired hugs and mementos.
As the story unfolds, we learn about Rootie's troubled relationship with her husband, who once took a beer-soaked napkin to her made-up face while the couple was in the presence of a few drunken buddies. As a way of coping with such indignities (as well as with the death of her brother), Rootie has embroidered a special pillow that she carries with her on her pilgrimage to Graceland. "Where I come from," she explains to Bev, "people are always putting together special things so they can touch God." The Mallomar-eating, more worldly-wise Bev, on the other hand, appears to have dealt with her own problems (including her husband's untimely demise) by surrounding herself with material possessions and--no surprise here--taking refuge in the music of the King. Bev even claims to own every liquor bottle ever made into an Elvis statue, declaring, "I've come to pay my respects to the most wonderful man I know!"
To their credit, the talented performers tickle a few raw nerves, touching on memory's capacity to both enrich and debilitate our lives and sometimes coming within a hair's breadth of immersing us in the emotional cauldron that seethes beneath their quick-paced dialogue. But even though the two characters' discussion sometimes teeters on the brink of turning into a rant about the evils of marriage and men, it never happens. Instead, Osterberg wisely elicits portrayals in which the possibility of breakdown is mostly suggested and, thanks to playwright Byron's well-placed quips and song lyrics, nearly always averted.
A few logistical problems detract from an otherwise enjoyable and thought-provoking production. Two obstacles to clarity that spring immediately to mind are Rose's on-and-off Southern accent and the informal atmosphere of the Mercury itself (darkening the room, adding a few stage lights and constructing a higher platform would better focus our attention). Minor worries aside, though, Rose and Ellinger drive home the playwright's delicately constructed message about dreams that refuse to die. And they also manage to remind us about "the things," as Rootie eloquently refers to spiritual matters, that are more powerful than death.
Graceland, presented in an open-ended run at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, 294-9258.
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