Why rename your town? Tourism! Or at least that’s what the residents of Beaver Gap think in Bruce Graham’s new comedy Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!). The show manages to be at once cynical and forgiving about human nature — and funny, too.
Florida Studio Theatre commissioned the 2020 play from Graham, an award-winning, Pennsylvania-based playwright . Graham wrote the play after learning that Jim Thorpe, the Native American war hero and Olympic champion, had never set foot in Jim Thorpe, PA. The town (formerly known as Mauch Chunk) renamed itself in 1954 after civic officials, in hopes of boosting tourism, made a deal with Thorpe’s widow to have his remains buried there and a memorial built.
Visit Joe Whitefeather‘s Story
Graham moves the story to 1974 in the fictional Beaver Gap, PA. The Watergate scandal is in the news, but town council has more immediate matters in mind: debating rescuing their dying town by changing its name to Joe Whitefeather (a legendary Native American with, you guessed it, no connection to the town). Graham frames the action through recollections from Lucy, 70-something proprietor of the Tranquility boutique, which she opened as a young woman (Malka Wallick). Lucy tells her story to a young Black filmmaker, Marcus (London Carlisle), who’s making a documentary about the Joe Whitefeather saga. While Crow is spot-on as the older incarnation of Lucy, a pot-smoking bohemian with a wry sense of humor, the doc-making flashback device feels a bit forced, until….
Well, can’t give that away. The first act sets up the details of the re-naming scheme, presented by the over-eager mayor as being in the town’s “best interests.” Things really get complicated (hilariously so) in the livelier second act. That’s when plans for the memorial get threatened by a surprise visitor, and the mayor and his cohorts begin to look toward not-quite-legal solutions.
The cast, directed with elan by Kate Alexander, is terrific. Kraig Swartz is the mayor, a well-meaning font of political incorrectness. Case in point: Wishing to impress a visitor (played to steely perfection by Anat Cogan) with his knowledge of Native American customs, he tells her, “We’ll never walk a mile in your moccasins.” Malka Wallick, ideally cast as Crow’s younger counterpart, bristles with intelligence and (at first) high moral dudgeon. Britt Michael Gordon is charmingly low-key as a gentle cop who may or may not be a love interest for Lucy. Finally, Jared Sellick has a fine comic turn as an undertaker (ahem, “funeral director”) who bemoans the drop in his business caused by cigarette warnings and seat belts.
The F-ing Librarian
My favorite character is Ellie Mooney’s Abigail, the sweet-as-pie town librarian. She’s also a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking harridan after hours. How does she find out everyone’s secrets? Because “I’m the f-ing librarian!” she announces. (Mooney does double duty as Joanie, the cranky town secretary and a Nixon fan.)
The set by Isabel A. & Moriah Curley-Clay morphs nicely from boutique to town hall to living room. Its warm woods and brick accents are warmly lit by Ben Rawson, and Mari Taylor Floyd’s costumes are on-the-nose ’70s.
And may I recommend a merchandising opportunity? A T-shirt saying “I’m the f-ing librarian!’ would be an instant best-seller.
Visit Joe Whitefeather: See the Show
Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!) Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, 1265 First St., Sarasota. Through May 21: Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat. 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sun., 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. $25-$39. floridastudiotheatre.org; 941-366-9000.