SOS Theater is a new production company committed to bringing “minnesota nice” to life. Their inaugural production of the new play, Roller Derby Queen, is very much a midwestern tale, weaving a yarn of complicated family relationships, “wrestling governor” references, malapropisms, hometown accents, paranoid schizophrenia, Rick Springfield, all set in the cozy and (maybe too familiar) Minnesota tundra. With a title like Roller Derby Queen, no wonder I was expecting the hardknock life of a local hero and was excited to experience this group of seasoned actors on a brand new set of boards, as well as, wheels.
Produced at the new Gremlin Theater space, (located in the back of the Saint Paul warehouse shared with Lake Monster Brewery), it’s a great little black box that Scenic Designer, Katie Phillips, transforms into a seriously cramped clutter of a hoarder house. Immediately we are introduced to FLORENCE (a plucky Nancy Mary) and her quirky old friend SCOTTY G (Raye Birk as the unconventional yet well planned comic relief). Florence, a widow and child of the sixties, has spiraled into a full blown hoarding disorder, complete with paranoia, irrational behavior, and denial. She and Scotty G., spend their days roaming the neighborhood and attending every church sale for the latest bag, armadillo statue, or outdated elliptical machine, to add to the inventory. She lives with her youngest daughter, MARY ELIZABETH (the tiny voiced Sara Marsh), who is sweet, childlike, and hiding a boyfriend from her overbearing mother. Something is a little off with “Lizzy” as she’s dressed in 1980’s pinks and pinch rolled pants, wears a cartoon backpack, and has an inappropriate obsession with the song Jessie’s Girl. Enter ELLEN (Carolyn Pool), the eldest daughter who wears the proverbial pants in the family. Resentfully taking responsibility for the decline of the house, her sister’s fragility, and her mother’s undiagnosed dementia, she swoops in like a dust buster determined to fix the piles upon piles of endless problems.
The three women orbit around one another through the entire first act, a pretty accurate illustration of the evolution of child/parent relationships and the difficult transition between being the child to inevitably becoming your parent’s caretaker, especially when it comes to decision making. My plus one expressed his appreciation for addressing this verity, as he had a similar experience relocating his aging father and suffered the reality of these never ending conversations. Florence is adamant that she has her life (and Lizzy’s) under control, while Ellen (and the audience) can see that she is not well, and certainly not thinking with any long term clarity. All are keeping pretty epic secrets from one another, saying what the others want to hear, and playing their familial roles out of necessity and survival...‘round and ‘round it goes. I’d like to say that there’s a whole lot more than this, but after a lot of talking in circles the fleshed out plot development doesn’t quite come to fruition. Not to say that the skeletons didn’t eventually vacate the closets, but they left me with more questions than answers! As things are revealed, life just moved on, as if Ellen getting knocked up by a Hispanic bus boy on a cruise, is enough information! Um what? I won’t do too much spoiling here because there some really interesting twists that unfold, just sadly left too unmined for my satisfaction.
I think the characters themselves are pretty darn interesting. First time playwright Michele Lepsche, describes in her program notes how the characters “chose” her to tell their story. I appreciate her letting these women come to her organically, but I think they are still a little underdeveloped. It’s clear that they have flaws, and relatable ones at that, but there are few redeeming qualities to these very different women. There are lies, tricks, secrets, manipulations, and although all of these things are how we navigate our way through family dynamics, I just didn’t sympathize with any one of them.
Florence is very funny but kind of awful. She tries to blow up her family? She shook her infant daughter because she was a daddy’s girl? She belittles everyone to diminish and ruin them, to the point that her husband clearly died at an early age? She’s completely selfish and self-serving and has no regard for anyone except, arbitrarily, the paranoid Vietnam vet. She’s painted as totally bonkers but by the end she’s just sadly misunderstood and...um a little gay? Not to mention what is really wrong with Lizzy? She goes in and out of lucidity from being a cute and innocent small town girl to having committed a bizarre crime that now she’s absolved of? She’s not been in therapy or diagnosed? Everyone just says “she’s ok” and when she makes her own way at the end of the play is kind of just waved off with a wink and a smile. Ellen, is the most real to me, but is a bitter, angry, middle aged woman who has no relationship with her daughter OR her mother, and though I see how she’d been put in the unfortunate role of the caretaker, why do I care about her? Throw in the odd, long time, relationship Scotty G. is having with his deceased best friend's mom? I have so many questions not to mention the biggest bomb of all is dropped within 10 minutes to the end of the play! NO! I need more time to process! I need more information!
The bottom line is that this story and quirky characters have a lot of potential, but I feel like the play and it’s structure needed more script investigation. I know Ms. Lepsche and crew have done some readings but I’m not quite sure Derby Queen was ready for this full production. I hope everyone continues to play in this world of organized chaos because I did enjoy some very fine dialogue, honest acting, and had some great laughs at Florence’s house that Sunday afternoon. I just want to like these folks, and to get to know them a lot better. I look forward to seeing where this play grows and continues to go, as it tackles some very important, very timely and darn funny topics. Roller Derby Queen goes into it’s final weekend in Saint Paul, if you’re not with family this holiday season, check it out...for better or for worse, it might just put you right at home!