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Parboiled 

Anne Galjour needs to cook Okra a little longer

Wednesday, Mar 10 2004
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Webster's calls it "a tall annual widely cultivated in the southern U.S. and the West Indies for its mucilaginous seed pods that are pickled or used as the basis of soups and stews." It's related to the hollyhock and bears a hibiscuslike blossom. Uncooked, it's like a green and crunchy skinless pepper, but when pickled or boiled in a gumbo it makes certain people gag on its mucilaginity and declare that they can't stand the stuff. Others see it as a metaphor and use it to name their plays.

Anne Galjour earned a reputation in the '80s and '90s for her monologues and one-woman shows about Cajun life (Alligator Tales, Mauvais Temps, Hurricane). Okra is her first play for more than one actor. It centers on a house in rural Louisiana, where a homebound daughter named Marie does a lot of cooking. The food and the talk about food will give you a taste for shrimp gumbo and fried alligator, but the oddest thing about Galjour's script is that Okra, as a title, seems to miss the point.

Lillian is the widowed matriarch of the Bourgeois family, who relies on her grown daughters, Marie and Claudine, to remember her pills each day and get her to the casino for a little fun. They live on a bayou near the Gulf Coast, where alligators and wild roosters thrive in the yard. Marie secretly loves a black neighbor named Antoine, but she's skittish and suffers like a child under her mother's reactionary Catholicism. (A fierce rooster keeps her from going outside very much.) Claudine is more liberated; she seems ready to challenge Lillian for gambling away their savings. Then a cousin named Henri arrives from France, reminding everyone of the long-dead Mr. Bourgeois, and the family chaos turns into a sort of psychological, Cajun-flavored French farce.

Okra comes up in conversation: Modern, untraditional Claudine hates it, while Marie can cook it like a master chef. Gumbo is another word for okra; the roots of the word are African; etc. But the real story here is the romance between Antoine and Marie, which Galjour handles with a rooster motif. Antoine says, "If I see that red roostah I'm gonna wring his red neck. I'm gonna cut off his head, pluck 'im, and gut 'im -- for you."

"Oh, Antoine," says Marie, blushing deep red. "I should put in the parsley now."

When Henri hears the same rooster cry in the distance, he crows lustily back, and the racket upsets Marie. "Ah," says Henri, settling down to a bowl of shrimp Creole. "You thought I was ze coq, trying to hurt you. I understand zese things."

And so on. Galjour's rooster belongs to Tennessee Williams' gallery of iguanas, paper lampshades, Southern hothouses, and spring storms. In the right hands, unsubtle motifs about sex can be funny, and Galjour knows how to make hers work on every level. (When Marie's romance with Antoine flowers we know exactly how she feels.) "Okra," by comparison, is just a thin label for a show set in Louisiana, and this odd reliance on a cliché -- and lack of focus on the vital story -- form the play's most obvious flaw.

David Dower directs a strong cast, with Frances Lee McCain deteriorating beautifully as Lillian (the way she flops on the couch like a beached sea lion to watch a televangelist is hilarious), Jeri Lynn Cohen working herself into a fluster for most of the play as Marie, and Ron Campbell providing farcical energy as Henri. Joseph K. McDowell is a sane and stable Antoine, who develops into a substantial character late in the script. And Anne Darragh is well cast as Claudine -- flinty and sexy, just this side of middle age, defensive yet willing with Henri. But no one in the cast can do a Cajun accent. Campbell's off the hook -- his character's from France -- and McDowell gets by with simple, appropriate Southern rhythms, but all the women try and fail to capture that elusive bayou sound.

So Okra is a solid but unfinished show. It's as if Galjour began to write about Claudine and Marie but ended up with the story of Marie, Antoine, and persistent racism in the New South. Galjour's notion of Louisiana as a boiling pot of racial types isn't original and can't support the whole play; her speeches about the state's history could also be integrated more cleanly into the script. But these are problems of polish and focus. Galjour's final scene is also the funniest and most fitting conclusion I've seen in years.

I hope she keeps working on this script. The Seattle Repertory Theatre commissioned it originally, so maybe Okra will move and evolve there or in other regional theaters. Galjour is on to something good -- it just needs a little more time on the stove.

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