There are journeys and there are journeys - the epic wanderings of Odysseus, the socially comatose drifting of the not-so-great Gatsby, the grand, globe-trotting of Phileas Fogg, even the down-home adventures of Huck Finn, or (right now in Salt Lake) the saga of Peer Gynt.
Then there's Ella."Ella who?" you might well ask.
Her journey, from Wendover to Panaca, on to the East Jesus truck stop near Atomic Flats, Nev., thence 123 hours east to Oklahoma City, Okla., is a strange and provocative trek, indeed. It has as many loose ends and raises nearly as many deep-seated questions as "Waiting for Godot."
But where "Godot" is a kinder, gentler, thought-provoking comedy, Julie Jensen's bizarre characters are several notches lower on the social scale.
"White Money" is - and this is just my own personal opinion - an indictment against the culture that television, as a medium, has fostered. Not "quality" television, but such addictive and idiotic fare as the wrestling matches and televangelists. (I daresay, if the shopping channels had been in vogue when playwright Jensen first conceived of this play, she might've included these assinine shows in her script as well.)
What, or who, is "White Money"? You might as well ask "Who is Godot?"
The central character in this award-winning, but loosely plotted play is Ella, a young woman who has somehow married a red-neck (and stiff-necked) mush-for-brains truck driver. But television's socially drought-stricken wasteland also runs through the entire six-part play, sort of like a murky undercurrent.
Director Robert Graham Small's cast is terrific. There are only four performers playing eight characters - most of them really weird.
Guest actress Garrison Burrell from Richmond, Va., is perfect as Ella, a sort of mixed-up woman. (When you first meet her zany mother, you know instantly where she's coming - and running - from.)
Salt Laker Jayne Luke gives a knockout performance as Nervene, Ella's husband's first wife, and as Seattle, the distaff half of the best tag-team wrestlers in the WW-WW.
("If she wouldn't of left him, I wouldn't of found him, then I wouldn't of got married to him, and I wouldn't of been sittin' here in Wendover, Nev., looking at her because of him," Ella says, thinking out loud when Nervene has the nerve to show up.)
Jean Roberts is also wonderful as Ella's mother in the first half of the play, surfacing later as the "India Indian" proprietor of a rundown motel on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
In the role of Ella's mother, she is an aging, agitated little woman who spends her time in Panaca, Nev., munching on cabbage, entranced and beguiled by the Rev. Winterose, a televangelist who is continually seeking "outpourings of the spirit" for his money-seeking Vortex. In the Indian role, Roberts has, basically, two oft-repeated
STAGE lines: "Yes" (accompanied by a wall-to-wall grin) and "the room is $26.50."
Russ McGinn also does a fine job in three roles - first as Snakes, Ella's couch-potato husband; then as Guy, a news video manufacturer who comes into her East Jesus truck stop, then as Killer Bovine, the greatest wrestler of all time (with his wife and teammate Seattle). McGinn is a highly qualified actor, but the characters he has to work with are probably the play's three weakest.
If you like your plays with distinct beginnings, middles and ends, "White Money" won't cut it. The plot, like Ella, sort of meanders aimlessly along.
Much of Jensen's comedy dialogue is biting and sarcastic, but there is one aspect of the play that I found particularly irritating: her propensity for repeating lines and phrases two or three times in rapid succession, almost like she's trying to milk the lines for all the laughs she can. (For instance, Ella will comment on something that she's just thinking aloud, then the line will be repeated by Snakes or Nervene, then maybe repeated again.)
A couple of colleagues who had seen "White Money" on a previous night also felt this constant repetition was grating.
And there's definitely a warning needed for prospective playgoers. "White Money" contains quite a bit of profanity and vulgarity, with unnecessary nudity at the end. (Let's just say that, while the play focuses on television's wasteland, the final moments give new meaning to the phrase "boob tube.")
Among the evening's strongest points, in addition to the outstanding cast, were Cory Dangerfield's intriguing scenery, Christine Murdoch Becz's costumes and Megan McCormick's lighting.
The set utilized a "dog-and-line" technique that allowed couches, TV sets and kitchen counters to be moved in and out of sight via cables hidden under the stage - sort of like a complicated theatrical version of the San Francisco cable cars. Motel beds also popped out of the floor and furnishings were quickly whisked on and off. Even the simple backdrop of unfinished particle board and a lighted curtain were right on target, when you consider that the settings for most of the action were trailer houses in Wendover and Panaca and a seedy Midwestern motel. (Like "HOT L BALTIMORE," the place where Ella ends up sports a sign emblazoned "EXIT 3 MOTE " and, to find the front desk, you check behind a door marked "OF ICE."
Costuming during the first half of the six-part play was fairly utilitarian: Ella in shorts and bikini top, both Snakes and Nervine in Levis and western shirts, and Ella's mother in a wrinkled housecoat. But, during the second half, Roberts was attired in the flowing robes of an Indian woman ("We named a whole continent of people after you folks, did you know that?" Ella remarks), and the two folks we've only heard about on Ella's TV sets - wrestlers Killer Bovine and Seattle - are spectacularly costumed in tight-fitting leopard motif outfits.
Even the pre-show and intermission music (on tape) fits right in - tunes by Frankie Laine and Johnny Cash, probably straight from the radio stations that keep Snakes, Guy and Ella entertained in the diesel trucks they drive across the country deserts.
Unfortunately, like the lives of the people depicted in Jensen's play, "White Money" left me with an empty feeling. The piece is interesting and often humorous, but, in the long haul, her characters seem to be caught up in their own selfish lives and we don't really care about any of them.
Well, maybe we care about whether or not Ella will catch pneumonia from strutting around topless (and nearly bottomless).