Contemporary Theatre of Dallas closes its season with Mrs. California, a play written by Doris Baizley in the mid-1980s satirizing the pre-liberation lifestyle of stay-at-home American housewives of the mid-1950s. Under Robin Armstrong's direction, Baizley's comic dialogue got easy laughs from opening night audiences, and Kaori Imai's June Cleaver-style '50s outfits and hairstyles are terrific fun throughout. But in Act II when tension develops between one of the contestants and her best friend, the play becomes rushed and clichéd, and I don't really care about the threatened bond between these two characters that, despite efforts of the actresses, are limited stereotypes as written.
The action takes place on the stage of the Mrs. California Contest of 1955, where four finalists are competing for the title, based on their ability to set a table, iron a man's white shirt with precision, sew an apron fastest, make delicious meals for hubby and kids, and do it all with perfect hair and a cinched waist.
The plot focuses on Dot (Sherry Hopkins) representing Los Angeles and sponsored by the local gas company. When the play opens Dot is standing stage center practicing her proudest moment speech for the contest, and recalling how when she was a Wave during World War II she decoded and transmitted a message that saved a fleet of Navy ships. Now she's applying all those smarts to being good wife with the best meatloaf and scalloped curtains in the state. Hopkins' Dot looks nostalgic and misty-eyed remembering her life before marriage, but most of the time she wears the hard, relentless smile of the permanently resigned good girl. Why is she even there?
Then her friend and neighbor Babs (Morgan McClure) shows up. Babs, a bomber electrician during the war, entered Dot in the contest because she wants to see her friend win—and go with her on the winner's trip in the "brand new red Desoto LaSalle sedan." Babs herself is way too liberated for the day-to-day effort of such demeaning activities as making beds and aprons, but she's dumped her husband and come along to boost her friend's make-up and petticoats—and even sabotage the other contestants efforts if that's what it takes. McClure's Babs is an over-the-top activist. Wired and wiry, pushing her way into everybody's face and talking non-stop, she's like a manic-depressive on diet pills. Her pep talks to Dot come across less as encouragement than marching orders. These two are a winning team?
The serpent in this gal-pal garden of idiotic pageantry and absurd contests is Dudley (Ashley Wood) the sleazeball rep from the gas company sponsoring Dot's entry. To get back in control of events, Dudley convinces Dot that Babs is secretly envious of her and that all her crazy antics are going to end up making Dot a loser. He insists she kick Babs out of the lineup—and quick. Can a stranger's ugly barbs wreck this relationship? Will the hard-working good wife stand up to her bossy friend? Does the bossy friend have her buddy's best interests at heart? I don't really care because the play hasn't convinced me that a meaningful friendship is actually at stake.
More fun are the secondary characters. Erin McGrew is funny and appealingly shy as Mrs. Modesto, and her radiant face when she recites the birthdates of her seven children is actually moving—and a surprise in the context of the rest of the play. Perhaps the best bit of the evening is the stylish Mrs. San Francisco (Jennifer Obeney), sophisticated in a smart black dress and manicured hair, demonstrating her perfect frozen dessert and describing in a rapturous voice the climactic moment when she added raspberries to the heart of the molded ice woman: "I call it her heart," she says smiling in triumph. Really.