Falling somewhere between autobiographical performance art and a down-home evening with an old and treasured friend, Balancing Act overflows with hilarious stories and vivid characters. For Diane Amos, who is also known as television's "Pine Sol lady," balance is hardly the stuff of comedy, and she's a comedian on a roll. While you can't help enjoying yourself, it's rather like being at a party with someone who keeps saying, "Did I ever tell you about the time ... I didn't? We-ell ...." You begin to feel that she's trying too hard, as though she fears that she's got to pack her one-woman show with absolutely everything. Which makes you wish she and her co-creators -- co-author Jim Medellin and director MJ Pritchard -- had paid more attention to structure and the dramatic heart of the matter, namely, Amos' independent and rebellious mom, Pearl.
The show unfolds chronologically, beginning with Amos' early childhood in the ghettos of Indianapolis, which is also the home of the Ku Klux Klan. We learn of her mother's tumultuous breakup with her father, a man whose involvement in his daughter's life seems limited to seeing that her hair is straightened on a regular basis. Tossed into the mix are stories of being raised black and Baptist while attending Catholic school, or about the havoc wreaked when Pearl falls in love with a woman who also happens to be white and Jewish.
Watching Amos, a big woman with a big talent, navigate the complicated course demanded by these topics is rather like observing a juggler who tosses up a variety of vastly different objects. There's suspense of a sort, but the trick for the audience becomes determining which of the objects whirling above her head is more important: the ball, the Indian club, or the carving knife?
That each subject in the show carries more or less equal weight points up the autobiographer's compulsion to include every detail. The second act is reduced to chapter headings: Amos' first love, her first Afro hairdo, her first real boyfriend, her first drama class, her first mentor. And while consistently creating an unforgettable cast of supporting characters, Balancing Act falls short of its subtitle, "A Fly-on-the-Wall Visit Into the House on the Block Everyone Wondered About." Life in that house where Amos and her sister lived with Pearl, Pearl's lover, Norma, and Norma's kids remains shadowy and indistinct compared to the world outside.
Thus the crucial scenes with Pearl, a parent who dispensed discipline with an iron fist, are curiously hollow. Rather than developing any sort of conflict, they carry a self-conscious confessional quality, as though Amos has not achieved enough distance to use this material dramatically. And without that relationship as the show's essential center, Balancing Act is less a play and more an unwieldy stack of anecdotes.
But so skilled is Amos at delineating the supporting characters -- her background is improvisation -- that they populate the stage fully. It's a marvel to watch her create, say, the world of the beauty shop, where she deftly moves from the chair, in which she's young Diane, to her feet, where she becomes Rayleen, the beautician who smokes and gossips and accidentally burns the wary child. But as the evening wears on, you find yourself growing restless and laughing less. Until, of course, Amos launches into a story as foolproof as the account of being a 5-year-old feigning sleep in order to watch her Aunt Dorothy and a boyfriend "doing it." Which makes you recall, once again, that she got where she is today by her extraordinary ability as an improviser, a performer who by definition thinks on her feet and comes up with the goods in the nick of time. It's a risky sort of balance, but in those moments you could care less.
Balancing Act runs through Sept. 21.