Take a boy whose mother died when he was 12 and whose father abandoned them even before that, have him fixated on his own machismo, his seething anger, and Elvis Presley, and you have a roaring bully and an egocentric Presley-impersonator who claims he has a “spiritual connection” with the iconic singer.
Add to that his enabling girlfriend who caters to his every whim, her mentally handicapped brother, and his father, a seedy homeless man who has suddenly shown up after years in prison. It isn’t a pretty family, and the tacky trailer in Appalachia that they live in matches their personalities well. Can you say “trailer trash?”
These are the principals in “Jesse Boy,” a play by Robert Mollohan now having its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. Mollohan also stars as Richie, the volatile “head of the household,” who gets his kicks from humiliating and abusing everyone in it. But despite the tension and the physical and emotional violence, there are moments of sweetness in this play and a story that is engrossing, if over-long and repetitive.
Zach Book makes his acting debut as Jesse-Boy and he is so consistently believable that you wonder if his disabilities are real. The play’s program reveals, however, that he volunteered at the Switzer Learning Center in Torrance to explore the concerns and the mannerisms that he so ably demonstrates.
Jaimi Paige plays Abigayle, Richie’s girlfriend and Jesse’s sister, with charm and dignity, and Kathleen Nicole Parke plays Mary-Lou, a local stripper who moonlights as a sometime sitter for Jesse when Richie and Abigayle are away. She finds her humanity in taking care of him, but falling in love with him is a bit over the edge.
Jesse spends much of his time locked in a wire dog-cage, being “punished” by Richie, and lives in terror of the frequent beatings and even rape that he undergoes. Richie, meanwhile, having left his car salesman’s job in a rage at having been “disrespected,” concentrates on winning a contest in Las Vegas as an Elvis impersonator.
Richie’s father, played by the ubiquitous Chris Mulkey (you’ll recognize his face), wanders in and out to drink Richie’s liquor and to try to reconcile with his angry son.
Karen Landry, Mulkey’s real-life wife, directs this talented ensemble, but she should have prevailed upon playwright Mollohan to cut it down from its two-hours plus running time. The play could also use a little consistency in its dialogue: the players frequently say “you is” but then contradict their own un-grammar with “they were.”
Mollohan does a pretty good Elvis impersonation and Roberta Christianson has done good work with the set design, lighting, and sound.
If you like intense family dysfunction — or good acting — then this play is for you.
“Jesse Boy” will continue at the always-excellent Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., in Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 12. Call (310) 397-3244 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.