As the play opens in a Neiman Marcus dressing room in Dallas (1986), main character Annabell Armstrong (Polly Lee) is searching for the perfect dress to wear to a country club wedding. Annabell is a political operative and rising star in the Texas Democratic Party during the Reagan-era. Her listener, observer of the Armstrong family since Annabell was a girl, is Neiman Marcus saleslady Mrs. Craig (Lee Roy Rogers). Annabell is full of political chatter and barbs against Reagan. She looks like a Southern belle, but she is not the dummy she was meant to be for mating with the Southern male. Annabell was an English major (useless) and drops literary names galore, Trollope, Molly Bloom, Henry James, and Yeats.
Oh, so this is fluff? No, it’s a political play, relevant to contemporary America’s widening gap between red and blue. No, again.
Turns out, Fix Me, Jesus is a memory play. It is the journey of a woman struggling to free herself from her family’s rigid control of her life, her beliefs, and her self esteem. That sounds dreary, but this is a story told with biting humor. Playwright Helen Sneed has a knack for telling the funny in the most negative aspects of human behavior.
Director Sam Pinkleton skillfully uses the in-your-face playing space at the Strelsin to stage the recurring flashbacks in Annabell’s memory. We never physically leave the fitting room, lined with racks of flouncy, flamboyant dresses, artfully assembled by Set and Costume Designers Christopher Ford & Dakota Rose.
Young Annabell (Kate Froemmling) is the sponge soaking up the teachings and directives of her opinionated family, sweetly played by young Froemmling. Annabell’s maternal Grandmother (Lisa McMillan) is a Right Wing racist against everybody who isn’t a Southern Anglo Saxon. Her ideas are so ridiculous that you can’t totally hate her, unless she messed up your impressionable, young mind. Larger than life, played with bravada and conviction by McMillan, Annabell’s Grandmother won’t set foot in Neiman Marcus because it is owned by the Jewish Marcus family.
Annabell’s Mother (Lori Gardner) is the good wife, as most women were back then. Gardner plays her with quiet authenticity. She grooms her daughter to be like her, ultra thin and a doormat when it comes to men. She is the well intentioned, lethal mother. Annabell’s political father is the invisible elephant in the room. She is her mother’s competition for his affection and goes into politics to please him.
Through her new therapist, Annabell discovers that her father is afraid she will succeed. Dr. Maxwell Feld (Mitch Tebo) is a Jewish, transplanted New Yorker, played with measured neediness by Tebo. Annabell develops a transference for him, and the married doctor a counter transference for her. When Annabell coaches him how to act at the Gentile country club, he has doubts he can pull it off. She tells him to just think of himself as Margaret Mead and the WASPs as the Samoans.
Polly Lee plays Annabell Armstrong beautifully, with all the contradictory notes and colors Ms. Sneed and Mr. Pinkleton gave her. She makes you laugh with her self deprecating quips and tugs at your heart with her pain. Lee Roy Rogers achieves the remarkable task of turning her secondary role into an equally strong presence on stage. The Listener/Advisor can be a thankless part, but Ms. Rogers holds her own and makes her life important to us.
At the performance, I wished that the playwright Ms. Sneed had focused sooner on the kernel of the story, Annabell’s life journey. Afterwards, I thought about it and wasn’t sure that the digressions at the opening weren’t an integral part of the exposition. The play closes on Mrs. Craig. That is original. But then it doesn’t end there. Annabell comes back briefly with her self described deus ex machina that wraps the story with an unclear and unnecessary bow.
You will relate more, or less, to Annabell Armstrong’s destructive childhood and its aftermath, depending on your own upbringing.
FIX ME, JESUS – By Helen Sneed; directed by Sam Pinkleton.
WITH (in alphabetical order): Kate Froemmling (Young Annabell), Lori Gardner (Annabell’s Mother), Polly Lee (Annabell Armstrong), Lisa McMillan (Annabell’s Grandmother), Lee Roy Rogers (Mrs. Craig), Mitch Tebo (Dr. Maxwell Feld).
Set and Costume Design by Christopher Ford & Dakota Rose; Lighting Design by Vadim Ledvin; Sound Design by Margaret Pine; Dramaturg, Chris Mills; Production Manager, John Trevellini; Production Stage Manager, Deidre Works; Casting Director, Carol Hanzel; Assistant Director, Lauren Z Adleman; Assistant Stage Manager, Sarah Marilyn Brown; House Manager, Patricia Crowe; Graphic Design by John Boudreau Designs; Photography by Kim T. Sharp; Press Contact, Bob Lasko. Presented by Abingdon Theatre Company, Jan Buttram, Artistic Director; Heather Henderson, Managing Director; Kim T. Sharp, Associate Artistic Director & Literary Manager. At Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, New York, NY 10018, 212-868-2055, www.abingdontheatre.org. Through November 24. Running Time: 90 minutes.