As writer, director and cast member, Reed has converted his rural roots into a morality tale. The message: Goodness will get you through the greasiest road blocks. As the comedy-with-musical-interludes begins, Ruby (Jon Piggy Cupit) is grieving the loss of her husband in a trucking accident. The victim's son, Teddy Bear (Gary Campbell), is a plucky "crippled boy" who still asks painful questions about how he lost his father. (That he also says things about his testicles and his bodily functions reminds us we're in Late Night territory.) Ruby and Teddy Bear have a solid bond; for a little while, it's like Late Night's version of Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
As the rest of the characters reveal themselves, so do alliances and agendas. Deke (Ron Megee), a masculine trucker with a titanic bulge in his pants to prove it, swaggers in. Blowing in like a tornado is Sheila Walker (Corrie Van Ausdal), the pregnant bride Deke left at the altar. Meanwhile, her daddy, Sheriff Dick Walker (Darryl W. Jones), might wield more authority if he'd quit mumbling through doughnuts. Reed plays a number of roles, including a country-music idol-in-his-own-mind named Slim Jenkins. Same goes for Jessalyn Kincaid, whose personae include Fancy, a zaftig truck-lot whore, and Willie Nelson, who opens Act Two with a pleasant, sincere version of "On the Road Again."
A revolving camp cabin was the central set piece in Late Night's Killings at Kamp Tittikaka this past spring, and Mother Trucker revives the turntable effect even more impressively. Complete with rotating front tires, the cab of Ruby's Pepto-Bismol-colored rig towers over the actors, who practically bump their heads on the theater ceiling when driving the thing. The cab rumbles to and fro, conveying the rush of an ignored speed limit, and turns around completely to allow the back to become a screen for the show's opening credits and a few cinematic car chases clipped from Burt Reynolds movies (which are funny once but inexplicably repeated with no payoff).
In the cab, Ruby and Teddy Bear take off on a mission to secretly transport Alabama No-No Juice, which must be something like heroin given its underground appeal. Along the way, Ruby picks up the hitchhiking Deke, inadvertently putting herself and her boy in the Walkers' target range. Sheila Walker is plum mad -- her ire recalls what Kill Bill might have looked like if Uma Thurman had played the whole thing in a bridal gown. Van Ausdal is a hoot; her expectant Sheila cusses, smokes and drinks with relish. And she takes to kidnapping Teddy Bear like Patty Hearst at the height of her Stockholm syndrome.
The show is boldly rude and politically incorrect, especially the chorus line of Klansmen whose white sheets bear imprints of faggy bouquets. Yet compared with the button-popping girth of Late Night's last show, an ungainly salute to disaster movies, Mother Trucker is almost minimalist. Its story flows smoothly while allowing its musical numbers a chance to breathe -- proving that Late Night can, after all, curtail a trend toward packing the stage to the breaking point and focus instead on a little lesson about a simple mom and her sweet-pea son, both on wheels with somewhere logical to go. Postscript: Anyone who's ever been entranced by a Broadway show or an original-cast album must make Screenland their destination this weekend, when the plush new downtown theater at 1656 Washington shows the invaluable documentary Broadway: The Golden Age. Rick McKay subtitles his film By the Legends Who Where There, and what a group he's gathered for this nostalgic glance at Broadway from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Stephen Sondheim, Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Elaine Stritch, Ben Gazzara, Arthur Laurents and Shirley MacLaine are among the living legends who reminisce about such shows as West Side Story, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Mame.
Because McKay spent 5 years working on the film, he has captured what are probably the last interviews of theater folks such as Gwen Verdon; actor and acting teacher Uta Hagen; and composer Fred Ebb, who died earlier this month. When the movie veers from tales of struggling actors scraping their pennies together to grab some lunch between auditions, it resembles what one might see at the greatest American theater museum. There's grainy footage of scenes from shows with their original casts, including Gazzara and Barbara Bel Geddes as Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Stritch and Kim Stanley in William Inge's Bus Stop. Theater professionals and theater lovers miss this movie at their peril. For showtimes, call Screenland at 816-421-2200 or see www.screenland.com.