How many stories do we find in popular culture about working-class American women in towns? Subtract "Roseanne" from the formula and the response is "very few." Dana Lynn Formby plants her flag firmly in the dirty soil of Western towns that are passing away by inches and examines the women who are hanging on by their fingernails.
In "American Beauty Shop," now in a world premiere with Chicago Dramatists, Formby takes on a great deal of issues that amount to big problem in Cortez, Colo. It still feels like it requires one or 2 more passes for all the intertwined highlights to shine, Megan Shuchman's staging brings out rich, colorful moments.
The setting is The Sugar Shack, a basement beauty parlor run by Sue (Katherine Keberlein), a single mom with a teenage daughter, Judy (Allison Torem), similarly skilled at piano and chemistry, who is awaiting word on acceptance into MIT. Take legal action against and her assistant, Meg (Melissa DuPrey), have actually come up with their own formula for a beauty product, which they hope to sell to a distributor with Whole Foods.
They could all use a big break. The arrival of Wal-Mart has actually turned downtown into a ghost town, helped by the 2008 recession. Among their only constant clients, Helen (Barbara Roeder Harris), is about to abandon them for SuperCuts. And Doll (Allie Long), Sue's younger sis, still drowns her grief about losing her own daughter years previously in gallons of vodka while pinning her hopes on winning the Powerball.
When Formby's play focuses on the personal histories of the women, the dialogue pops. Especially in the stress between Sue and Doll, she displays a hurting yet blackly comic knowledge of how old household resentments discover fresh focus with each brand-new crisis. That's a powerful topic that deserves even more expedition here, as the women struggle within themselves and with each other to discover footholds for the future.
At present, I 'd say Formby's play tends to lose a bit of tension when she stops to work in minutes of social review from the characters' mouths. These targets range from the Wal-Martization of America, casual racism (Meg is Latino and still treated as "other" by her fellow townies), the method huge banks walked away unscathed from the Great Recession they assisted birth, lack of access to reproductive health facilities, and American militarism.
Excellent and necessary targets, to be sure. But at least at present, those moments don't feel as totally invested as the personal family drama, which causes a specific halting quality in the narrative as the characters step out of the frame to deliver a signboard observation.
Keberlein's anguished Sue states, "Small towns are parasites on the soul," but we sense that she also requires to believe that Cortez can be a city of gold again. "American Beauty Parlor" reveals the dark roots of financial vulnerability encroaching on their lives.