At its opening night at WaterTower Theatre, numerous audience members were overheard comparing Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s latest play to Steel Magnolias. Although Manicures & Monuments does begin with a timid beautician arriving to buff and polish the nails of her elders, that’s about the only thing this mess of a script has in common with the beloved story of female bonding and support.
Manicures also premiered before Robert Harling’s 1987 Magnolias, running at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary here in Dallas in 1985. (It stays at WaterTower through June 28.) Local playwright Cheatwood has been tinkering with it ever since, and what exists now might be a case of too much examination.
Simply put, there is no fun in this story. Set in an Oklahoma nursing home and populated by people who feel nothing but miserable and trapped, there’s nothing — and no one — for the audience to root for or even care about.
Mikaela Krantz tries valiantly to make the shy, stumbling Janann adorable in her flaws, but the first scene is basically the only time she’s likable. As the perky teen is nervously babbling about her boyfriend (named Boy) and her hopes for one day traveling to see all the country’s major monuments (especially Mount Rushmore), there’s a ray of hope.
In the next, which jumps ahead a few months, Janann is pregnant and a shotgun bride. With each scene shift and time jump, her circumstances get more and more limiting until Janann is “the queen of the white trash” and desperate to give her tattered life some meaning.
A tough old broad named Bailey, gamely played by Pam Dougherty, does her best to be the maternal support and encouragement Janann never had. Though Dougherty is always interesting to watch, Cheatwood doesn’t explain enough of Bailey’s motives to help the character make sense. Why is Bailey so prickly in one scene, yet a total softie in another? And it’s not just when Janann’s around.
On the other end of the spectrum, some of the supporting characters are tedious in their sameness. Elly Lindsay, one of Dallas’s most regal actors, portrays a sweet woman with Alzheimer’s or dementia (it’s unclear which). A hint of her memory loss would have made a much stronger impact than reciting the same questions for an entire scene. As Janann gets fed up with the endless cycling, so do we.
The same goes for David Price and Edward Beal, who are tasked with the uncomfortable challenge of portraying mentally disabled men without coming off as offensive. The actors toe an admirable line, but Cheatwood’s script descends into tasteless jokes about the two whenever possible.
The only character who conjures a hint of empathy is Smitty, the full-time care aide who is increasingly put upon as the home’s conditions deteriorate. Aigner Edgerson is wonderfully brusque and sassy, yet when she reaches her breaking point in the second act, this sudden shift in her personality feels out of place.