Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Okra is a Pleasant Cajun Soap Opera
Brava! For Women in the Arts presents the world premiere of Okra, a dark comedy by Anne Galjour who primarily has a reputation for her monologues about Cajun life. This is the first time she has written a multi-character comedy drama about a dysfunctional family living in rural Louisiana. This is a family of women dominated by a mother who is bordering on Alzheimer's. She is also a notorious gambler who loves to play video poker at a local gambling establishment called "The Treasure." Another favorite pastime is playing the state lottery and then praying to the Virgin Mary to give her the winning numbers.
Okra refers to the vegetable those Cajun folks in Louisiana love. As the daughter explains, okra is slimy to the touch and when you cook it in boiling water, it has an atrocious smell. There is a lot of talk about okra in this two hour, two act production. They talk about shrimp gumbo, fried alligator tails and even give out a recipe on how to make chicken gumbo. You even get a smell of the cooking in the second act. However, the title has very little to do with the goings on of the family and their friends.
Lillian Bourgeois (Frances McCain) is of the old school and firmly believes in family pride and values - even at the cost of her relationship with her two daughters, Claudine (Jeri Lynn Cohen) and Marie (Anne Darragh), who hate her. Lillian is a conservative Catholic who listens to evangelist preachers on television. She carries a rosary and talks to a statute of Virgin Mary in their yard. She is a widow whose husband left a nice little bankroll. He must have, since she spends around 40 grand just playing video poker and blackjack.
Claudine is a mousy little person who loves to cook shrimp gumbo and is secretly in love with the African American neighbor Antoine (Joseph K. McDowell), and that's a big no-no for the mother. Claudine is also afraid to leave the house, in fear of what she relates as an attack by a three foot tall rooster.
Marie is a frustrated middle-age teacher who has left her teaching job in New Orleans to come home to get some of that money the mother has stashed away. She reminds me of Rosalind Russell in the movie Picnic. Marie has a heck of time trying to deal with her mother's idiosyncrasies. She wants power of attorney so she can control the bank account.
Henri (Ron Campbell), a 13th cousin visiting from Calais, France, complicates matters in the household. He has the strangest French accent I have heard in years - straight out of Fox historical movies of the '40s and '50s (particularly Hudson Bay, which had Paul Muni and Laird Cregar sporting the same French dialect). Antoine seems to be the only person who does not have a hangup. Oh, maybe one - he is secretly in love with Claudine. He's out to kill that big rooster that is causing poor Claudine all that trouble. This is one big wonderful dysfunctional group.
All of the actors are very good, although none sport a Cajun accent. Jeri Lynn Cohen performs well as a flustering person who loves to cook while Anne Darragh is well cast as the steely Claudine. Ron Campbell bounces around the stage with his faux French accent, bordering on farce acting. Joseph K. McDowell is very good as the unwavering Antoine.
Okra is a charming piece of Americana, but it still needs work since the characters are not properly fleshed out. A scene about integration also needs work. The ending is priceless and it is a real hoot. The play was originally commissioned by the Seattle Repertory Theatre and there is a possibility it will be produced there. Okra closed on March 14 at the Brava Theatre.