The Footlight Players find religion in unlikely places in John Culberton's Messiah on the Frigidaire. The South Carolina playwright's script delivers consistent laughs along with a message at the end that may or may not rub viewers the wrong way, depending on their point of view.
Our protagonist Lou Ann Hightower is no longer satisfied living in the nicest trailer park in Elroy, S.C. With a beer-swilling, couch potato husband, rude neighbors, and a handful of forgotten dreams, she's desperately looking for a sign to tell her what to do. And she finds it, right on the Frigidaire sitting on her front porch: the face of Jesus Christ himself (or Willie Nelson, if you ask her husband). The discovery sends Lou Ann and those around her on an adventure in righteousness, exploring everything from money to relationships to religion.
The trailer park set earned applause from the audience before the first line was even spoken. Three tiny vintage campers sit in front of a bright blue background. A makeshift porch is built onto the front of the Hightowers' trailer, with two red lawn chairs, a trash can, and, of course, the refrigerator completing the homey scene. Whether the characters are going in and out of the screen door or pouring tumblers of iced tea, they seem genuinely at home.
As Lou Ann, Rhonda Kierpiec (Sordid Lives, Noises Off) nails the role of a woman who is desperate but hopeful, depressed but quick to laugh. She spends most of the play with a worried look on her face, guided as much by her faith as she is by those closest to her. Her best friend Betsy (Tracy Abeles, August, Osage County) lives in the trailer next door and is still trying to live down her reputation as the biggest slut in high school. From the moment she takes the stage in daisy dukes and platform heels, Abeles ups the energy significantly and consistently delivers amusing lines throughout the production. The SAG member recently relocated to Charleston after stints in New York, Los Angeles, and Connecticut, and her experience shows.
After Lou Ann spots the vision, she reaches out to her pastor for guidance, but the slow-talking Rev. Hodges (E. Karl Bunch, in his 50th appearance on the Footlight stage) will have nothing to do with it — miracle chasing just isn't proper. Instead, encouraged by her husband Dwayne (Joshua Bates, in his Footlight debut) and Betsy, Lou Ann makes a call to a national tabloid and thousands flock to see the vision.
Motivated by the thought of making money off of the venture, Dwayne gets off the couch and interacts with his wife more than he has in years. Lou Ann, on the other hand, struggles with the ethics of using the "gift" for her own gain. The plot thickens as the town leaders (including Rev. Hodges) make a questionable suggestion to keep the visitors coming, and Betsy jumps right on board. Some of the funniest moments come when Betsy impersonates a Hispanic woman invented by the tabloid who supposedly heard the Messiah speak from the Frigidaire.
As the trio gets entrenched deeper in the ruse, tempers run high and the conversations get serious. Yet the play manages to avoid being preachy until the very last scene. A dejected Lou Ann is approached by a stranger in a seersucker suit who mysteriously knows a lot about her. He comforts her, saying that sometimes the Lord can be found in mysterious places. He assures her that Dwayne, who has different ideas on religion, will eventually find his way, because he's a good man deep down. When the visitor disappears abruptly, the crowd is left to decide whether he was the Big Man himself or not.
This final twist in the script feels gimicky and unnecessary with the all-knowing God wrapping everything up for the characters. The Messiah on the Frigidaire may have been fleeting, but Lou Ann still needs a front-porch visit from God to help her figure everything out. The playwright's choice provides a jarring conclusion, making the play feel more like a church production in the end, which is disappointing considering the great work of the cast, solid direction from Don Brandenburg, and the general quality of the rest of the play.