When young Georgian Donna Thomas lost her college fund in her parents’ divorce, she had to get a job at Steak and Ale. There she met a rich customer who gave her a VCR for a birthday present. This was in the 1980s, when a VCR was a big ticket item, so she broke up with her boyfriend and went off on an around-the-world fling with the mysterious businessman. They fell madly in love. They got engaged. He had a crazy ex-wife, but that seemed surmountable. He paid for the twelve thousand dollar engagement ring with cash, but to Donna, that just meant he could. Everything went fine, until it didn’t.
Thomas has a better excuse to talk than some autobiographical monologuists. There’s a lovestruck bride; a charming, criminally duplicitous and abusive husband; a violent and jealous rival; a notorious international drug ring; and the never-fail tragic element of paradise found and lost. From Southern Belle to Mrs Cartel would make a hell of a cocktail-party story, or a Lifetime movie. But its current incarnation as a twenty-five minute speech doesn’t exploit the resources to best advantage.
Thomas is an unpolished writer and performer. The inherently interesting story unfortunately comes across as pedestrian, with an undisciplined structure and casual, colloquial, uninteresting language. Thomas’s voice is not easy to hear from the back rows, and her low-energy physicality belies the flopsweat that can look like apathy. As directed by Margot Leitman, the presentation is both languid and trite, with chestnut visual punctuation via snapshots of 80s wardrobes and well-timed red flags (“you don’t know what he does for a living;” “his friends are all Colombian”) projected onto a screen via MacBook.
Donna Thomas has lived an inspiring second act. After the traumas that led to a divorce, she became a successful executive. She also runs a couple of scholarship funds for young women – one for college students from her hometown, one for aspiring stand-up comics. It is probably a measure of her modesty that the show’s only reference to her current career is a line to the effect of “and that led to who I am now.” But we don’t know who she is now, other than a woman in jeans. Those are just the kinds of details that, when left out, leave a story dry. Who she is now is a strong, excellent person. We need to see that, and twenty-five minutes isn’t enough – though any more time with the show at its current level would be a bad idea.
Thomas mentions at the tail end that it was in an improv class three years ago that she started to reinvestigate her history. She says that the process has been very therapeutic for her. After some more performance practice and a lot more work on this monologue, it’ll be useful to a wide audience, too.
From Southern Belle to Mrs Cartel plays:
Friday June 19 at 10 p.m.
Thursday June 25 at 8:30 p.m.
at the i.O. West Mainstage, 6366 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood
for tickets visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/2393?tab=details