Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!
OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …
For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.
So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.
If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)
Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.
The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently–and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.
You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:
Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.
Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.
Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.
Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.
Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.
Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.
Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.
Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.
Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.
Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.
Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.
There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.
If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.
Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.
Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.