‘Doublewide’ modern day tragedy about death of the American dream
From the instant you walk into Florida Rep’s Artstage Studio Theatre, you know you’re about to experience something unique. Ensconced in the middle of three cozy sections of tiered theater seats arranged in an elongated horseshoe is the spare interior of the doublewide mobile home perched atop cinder blocks painted pale blue to match the exterior trim. You’re so close that it feels as if you’re sitting in a lawn chair or atop a downturned five-gallon paint bucket in the front yard. That wouldn’t be bad except that the drone of cars speeding by reminds you that you’re sitting dangerously close to a highway that connects the nearby town with the casino up the road.
Set designer Ray Recht has created an unbelievably realistic environ, both inside and out. While the particleboard siding has been eliminated to furnish line-of-sight access to the mobile home’s interior, the two railed russet colored metal steps and cut-off of a flimsy weathered aluminum door let you know that you’re looking at a cheaply-constructed model that probably dates back to the 1980s or early ‘90s. The interior confirms these suspicions with its paper-thin vinyl walls, flush Lauan hollow-core doors and glossy laminate floors. The living-dining area is appointed with just a fabric love seat, old beige trunk that serves as a coffee table, 36-inch flatscreen sitting atop a low wood table, and a 4-piece Cappuccino-colored dining set purchased, no doubt, at Sears or Montgomery Ward. While functional, the carpeted bedroom to the left of the front door contains but a low double bed, violet painted night stand and two chocolate-colored plastic crates. Clearly, whoever lives here is just barely getting by.
The “whoever” is the Starkey family, consisting of Jim Starkey, his wife Sharon and their daughter Lorelai. Played by Gregg Weiner, Big Jim is a driver for a soft drink distributor. Sharon, played by Rachel Burttram, is an assistant manager at the Wal-Mart who, because of chronic no-shows, spends her seemingly endless workdays working the cash registers. And 17-year-old Lorelai, played by Cypress Lake High School junior Isabella Cintron, is a high school coed more interested in saving up for a car so she can drive herself to concerts than in salvaging her grades and getting her high school diploma.
As it turns out, the Starkeys aren’t getting by at all. Like 76 percent of working Americans, Jim and Sharon are living paycheck to paycheck. Like half the country (47% according to a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board in 2013), the only way they could come up with $400 to cover an emergency or unexpected expense (like a car repair or dental bill) is to place it on their credit card at 29.99 percent interest. As a result, Jim feels so trapped, he’s “never getting loose.” But his congenial and quiet desperation is only half the story that playwright Stephen Spotswood brilliantly constructs. Jim, Sharon, Lorelai and even Jim’s mom, Coral, are so stuck that they’ve lost the ability to envision a better life.
Jim dreams of replacing the doublewide with a proper house he can leave to his daughter one day, but conspicuously absent from his home and conversation are building plans or drawings, house magazines like Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living or Architectural Digest, or even a damn picture of the type of house he’d like to build. Sharon’s greatest ambition is to get a job at the casino as a croupier because her back can’t take another day of standing on bare concrete for yet another eight to ten hour shift. Lorelai hopes for a job in the recording industry one day, but hasn’t even bothered to find out if there’s a minimum GPA requirement for the trade school she’ll need to attend, never mind reading up on how to break into an industry as competitive as music. Nana’s plan is to avoid the death knell of canning by whiling away her days and Social Security check at the casino. She claims to have a system to strike it rich playing the slots, but then again, doesn’t everyone?
At its heart, Doublewide is a modern-day Greek tragedy about the loss of the American dream. Spotswood’s tragedy takes place somewhere in Pennsylvania, but truth be told, it plays out in upstate New York, Michigan and Wisconsin as well. You’ll find its real life actors subsisting more than living throughout the rust belt, and in the suburbs and urban areas too. It’s an epidemic spreading from to coast and it’s infecting more and more of our vanishing Middle Class.
But why? Is it because people like Jim, Sharon and Lorelai just don’t know how to make and implement plans aimed at achieving their dreams in the manner outlined by Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich? Or is it because they know deep down inside that their “dreams” are unachievable, so why bother making plans like a modern-day Don Quixote?
Spotswood supplies the answer, not once, but twice.
The first comes in the form of a letter that informs Jim and Sharon that because of the success the casino is enjoying, the county is condemning their front yard and taking the land to widen the highway. Oh, the government promises to pay fair value and cover the costs of moving the doublewide to the back of their lot, but even if it does (and that’s dubious, at best), the quarter-acre remaining won’t be big enough to accommodate the house Jim dreamed of building.
The second comes at the end of Act One, with Jim sitting in camouflage in a tree stand waiting for a passing deer to shoot. After acknowledging that he doesn’t check in nearly enough, he asks God for a little help with the county, his daughter and, “if it’s not too much trouble,” a buck or even a nice doe (although a 14-pointer would be even better). Some say that God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. For the Starkeys and an increasing number of Americans, it feels more like God and government have abandoned them and no matter how little you wish and hope for, you’ll just have to lower your expectations and learn to settle for even less. By way of example, Sharon and Lorelai have the same reaction to the county’s condemnation of their front yard. “What’s the big deal?” they ask. “We don’t use it anyway?”
It’s small wonder that so many working class Americans are mad as hell at their lot in life today. And when Lorelai asks her dad if he ever wants to shout at the world, Big Jim gives the answer most of us know to be true in our heart. “I’m afraid if I ever start, I won’t be able to stop,” he answers softly, with characteristic grace and charm.
While the plot and overarching themes of Doublewide are somber indeed, they’re counterbalanced by the wry humor and homespun simplicity Spotswood builds into his dialogue and characters. The Starkeys live the old Abraham Lincoln adage, “ I laugh because I must not cry.” Gregg Weiner as Big Jim, Rachel Burttram as Sharon, Carrie Lund as Coral and Isabella Cintron as Lorelai each possess a feel for comedic timing and deliver a stream of disarming one-liners that keep us laughing, off-guard and entertained throughout the play’s many twists and machinations.
Whether you are rich or poor, retired or a working stiff, you will come away from Doublewide with a greater appreciation for the people depicted in this tremendous tragi-comedy of a play for a variety of reasons. By being thrust so close to the action (in fact, several scenes take place in the aisles between the perpendicular rows of raised theater seats), you feel as if you’re a friend or member of the family who’s dropped by for an impromptu visit. Because of Spotswood’s ear for dialogue, the banter is easy, effortless and totally realistic. The actors are so natural and comfortable with each other, they take on the aura of real, down-to-earth people that you know, like and care about. And Sound Designer John Kiselica’s track of crunching tires, passing vehicles, ringing phones and text notifications further enhance the suspension of disbelief so important to the success of any theatrical production.
One additional factor helps explain the realism achieved in this production by the playwright, Director Maureen Heffernan and Florida Rep’s crack creative team, and that’s the way the actors handle the plentitude of props involved in this play. It starts from the very first scene, in which Gregg Weiner (as Jim Starkey) is writing up the receipt for boxes of canned soft drinks he’s delivering to an unseen store clerk and continues with Rachel Burttram (as Sharon Starkey), as she arrives home with a load of groceries from Wally World, puts them all away while checking the mail, and then dives into the day’s clean and dirty laundry. None of the actors’ continual interaction with the articles of everyday life seem forced or contrived, adding to the sense that you’re really there in (or just outside) the Starkey home watching a real life Everyman family going through the paces of their normal existence. Remarkable.
Doublewide is an immersive experience for the audience because of these and other factors. It’s definitely one of those plays that will remain with you long after the final scene. While the play offers no explanation for the death of or strategies for regaining the lauded American dream, it provides a doublewide full of insight to the plight of the 99 percent who find life in American today to be one big struggle. This may or many not increase your self-awareness and empathy. But one thing you’ll know for sure as you gather your own things and prepare to leave the theater. “The Starkeys Were Here.”
Doublewide is on stage in the ArtStage Studio at Florida Rep through May 14.
[All photos except top two provided courtesy of Summer Groh and Florida Repertory Theatre.]
April 18, 2017.