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Theatre in Review: The Pink Unicorn (Episcopal Actors' Guild)

Alice Ripley. Photo: Jazelle Artistry.

Trisha, the heroine/narrator of The Pink Unicorn, is -- at first glance, anyway -- a thoroughly unremarkable lady, although this is about to change. A widow living in a small Texas town, she works as a cleaner at the local hospital. A Presbyterian congregant, her worldview is largely shaped by The Rachael Ray Show and the novels of Debbie Macomber. A slightly diffident sort, she seems to focus her energies on getting by and staying out of trouble. Then her daughter, Jolene, a high school freshman, starts acting oddly: She cuts her hair short, adopts an all-black wardrobe that eschews dresses, and helps found a gay-straight alliance at school. She also scandalizes the school's administration by planning on appearing for her class photo in a blazer and tie, the regulation style for male students. The reason for all this: "I'm genderqueer, Ma," she says. "Look it up."

The introduction of that word into Trisha's vocabulary sets her off on a personal odyssey that forces her to reconsider nearly everything that she believes, as she runs afoul of her pastor, her community, and, most of all, her mother. As she struggles with the changes happening to Jolene -- you can call her Jo, thank you very much-- she finds herself on the outs at her church, standing up to her controlling mother, taking a second look at her alcoholic brother, and connecting with the town's "underground railroad for lesbians, gays, and bi-whatnots," as Jo and her friends become embroiled in lawsuits and demonstrations against the school board. Adding fuel to the fire, the Presbyterian Church (US), the denomination to which Trisha belongs, votes to accept openly gay ministers, a decision that roils the faithful.

Indeed, at a Sunday service, the appropriately named Pastor Dick reads "a quote from the Los Angeles Times, [flashing] it up on the PowerPoint screen so we could see how this California reporter congratulated the USA Presbyterians 'for finally listening to popular opinion and opening the church to gay leadership'." He then announces, "We're not gonna be popular here, friends. No, sir. Sometimes you just have to take a stand. We're not going to let no LGBTQ into this church and we're not gonna let them lead this church." Almost without thinking about it -- and in a most unhappy frame of mind about Jolene-- Trish stands up and says, "Excuse me, Pastor Dick? Since when has supporting the LGBTQ become a popular opinion? I mean really, what does some California reporter know about America? Because the last time I checked, the gays weren't popular with anyone, anywhere at all."

In the view of Elise Forier Edie, author of The Pink Unicorn, revolutionaries are made, not born, and circumstances are driving Trisha, against her better judgment, toward the barricades. Fortunately, the playwright's charity toward those left out of the mainstream doesn't keep her from having a wickedly malicious eye for certain small-town types. Speaking about a supersized acquaintance, she says, "She panted and dripped, looming above me, blocking out the noonday sun." Cyril Makepeace, the high school principal, she notes, has "a big old office and a big, old desk, and it's just as neat as a pin. I mean there's not a single thing on it but a purple jar of hand cream." When Trisha talks back to him, she notes, "Cyril looks at me and there's this little crack in his complacency. It's like a whiff of ammonia cutting through that fake violet smell." Recalling the reaction at church to the possible ordination of gay ministers, she says, "You would have thought the Presbyterians had decided it was all right to run around naked and dance the hoochie koochie at the holiday church bazaar."

In something of a surprise, Trisha comes to us in the form of Alice Ripley, best known for many musical-theatre roles and here essaying one of her rare dramatic assignments. She nails the Texas accent and captures Trisha's slightly hesitant manner, the product of a lifetime of disappointments. But she easily lands a Texas-sized laugh when confiding, "I am going to say some unkind things and I hope you will forgive me for this," before offering her full and frank opinion about a friend and neighbor. She also makes clear how Trisha walks a line between the conventional attitudes handed down to her and the need to stand up for her daughter. (As she notes, amusingly, at one point, in a match between Jolene and Pastor Dick, the latter doesn't stand a chance.) I must add, however, that as of the matinee last Sunday, the actress wasn't totally on top of the script; she hesitated several times and had to call out for a line twice. She may very well be in far better command by now; given the slightly tentative nature of the performance, it is difficult to fully assess Amy Jones' direction.

At least at the performance I attended, this lack of assurance laid bare a certain weakness in the script. Given the way Trisha talks back in church, it seems pretty clear from the get-go that she is going to end up on the side of the angels, and during the second half of The Pink Unicorn, the author seems to be throwing up artificial roadblocks to slow down our arrival at the inevitable destination. A certain cutesiness also creeps in a times -- you might get tired of hearing about Jolene's pet tarantula, Beetlejuice, and the fanciful animal of the title is deployed rather sentimentally -- and, surprisingly, the script is so focused on Trisha that her daughter tends to fade from view. You should also know that this is a bare-bones production, utilizing a church hall as the set and featuring a minimal lighting design, although Hunter Dowell's costume certainly seems right for Trisha.

Still, The Pink Unicorn has crowd-pleaser potential and I wouldn't be surprised if it is already in much better shape. And Trisha's journey toward inclusion is a perfect one for the venue. As the playwright makes clear, it takes a series of deeply personal jolts to make her stop loving the church and start listening to the message of Jesus. --David Barbour

(16 May 2019)

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