When Callie Callender (Megan Wicks) returns to her Texas hometown after a stint in Las Vegas, she’s determined not to get back together with her ex-boyfriend. Throughout the first act of Lee Brady’s Southern Lights (at Z Space through Dec. 22), Callie repeatedly pushes Lonny McGee (Cameron La Brie) away from her, telling him that his come-ons sound like country music clichés. In this “Country Music Romance,” Brady builds her plot around several of those clichés and then strings them together with a dozen songs. The playwright is lucky to have two great singers in this production to sell the music because she neglects to develop the characters. But each time the dialogue and plot lines fail to cohere, Wicks and La Brie save the show when they start to sing.
Southern Lights pits Callie’s disillusionment and bitterness against Lonny’s long-held, innocent illusions. Callie’s late father, Cash Callender, was a famous country singer. He left her mother LouAnne, a singer-songwriter in her own right, but not before adopting Lonny. For a minute, Brady lets a suggestive line of dialogue hang in the air. She implies that Callie’s and Lonny’s past relationship ended because it was incestuous like the main characters in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. But it’s a deliberately misleading and unnecessary moment that the actors leave behind. As a way of accounting for Callie’s emotional bruises, Wicks dons a black, silk robe to act out her mother’s past. And La Brie puts on a cowboy hat to become Cash.
When the actors step into this backstory, their roles are reversed. LouAnne can’t cope with Cash’s absences while he’s on the road. Callie witnessed her mother’s desperation. As an adult, she doesn’t want to play the role of a dependent woman, a Patsy Cline type who falls to pieces when her man is away. In the present though, it’s Lonny who hasn’t gotten over Callie. But the sexual politics on view feel dated and awkward. There’s a herky-jerky, juvenile quality to Callie’s and Lonny’s conversations. They’re full of repetitive declarations, incomplete sentences, and half-formed thoughts. Then, when you think that Callie has pushed Lonny away for the last time, she suddenly embraces him at the end of Act I.
The unsettling message is: When a man persists in pursuing a woman after receiving dozens of “no’s,” she’ll eventually give in. Lonny often grabs Callie, and both actors look uncomfortable when he does. They also have a wrestling match in which she emerges as the victor. This scene is meant to show off the sexual tension that still exists between them but both actors struggled with the contours of what their characters’ physical relationship should look like on stage. Knowing their history, it’s reasonable to assume that Callie had come home to see Lonny again. But when Callie accepts Lonny’s advances, it feels abrupt. Brady hasn’t written any monologues, interior or exterior, that show a young woman gradually falling back in love with an ex. Instead, the playwright relies on the songs to do that work for her.
It’s in the second act, however, that the structural problems within Southern Lights reveal themselves. That’s when we learn about the melodramatic trauma that sent Callie away from Lonny and Texas. Her parents’ marriage ended badly, as badly and as predictably as a tragic country song. But the first act doesn’t contain a through line of tragic foreshadowing. We know that Cash is dead from the outset but Callie maintains that she’s angry at her father. After we know what the tragedy is, all that anger turns against her mother. Since Southern Lights isn’t a detective story, it felt disingenuous of the writer — or mishandled — to perform such an about-face with the main character’s feelings about her parents.
Wicks started out singing near Linda Ronstadt’s warm, lower register, and later brought out sad, drawling, bluesy notes. La Brie had the best number though with “You’d Better Go,” written by Joanne Montana. He summoned up male heartbreak like Teddy Thompson did so achingly well on his 2007 album Upfront & Down Low. Both Wicks’ and La Brie’s voices, in solos and duets, transcended the constraints of the clunky storyline. Their romance made dramatic sense only when they harmonized on those wonderfully clichéd yet emotionally straightforward country lyrics.
Southern Lights, through Dec. 22, at Z Space, 470 Florida St., $20-$45; 415-626-0453 or zspace.org