As the oldest (and bossiest) of three sisters, I went into the premiere of Jeff Daniels's new comedy, Norma and Wanda, with a fair amount of arrogance. I consider myself an expert in sibling argument and allegiance, especially the types that arise at family gatherings. I didn't think a play could teach me anything. I was wrong. And right.
Norma and Wanda is wacky and farcical, with plenty of physical comedy and hilarious one-liners, but lurking behind the seemingly silly facade lies a universal truth you won't expect. The Purple Rose's intimate space and set designer Dan Walker's cutaway view of a typical prim midwestern home both allow for a delightful, fly-on-the-wall view of this bizarre yet hauntingly familiar get-together. It's an amalgam of every emotion, confession, and resolution at every dysfunctional family gathering I've ever attended. It's hilarious and scary, all at once.
Things start off with two sisters each awaiting the arrival of someone the other doesn't want to see. Sweet, compliant Norma (Michelle Mountain) is waiting for her husband, Mel (Jim Porterfield), to come home. Mel, who is locally notorious for his homemade sausage ("It's the combination of the high quality of my meat and pork fat"), openly hates Norma's sister Wanda (Sandra Birch). Understandably nervous, Norma is making peanut butter balls for the town's annual Baby Jesus Memorial Brunch while the uninvited, unwelcome Wanda (wearing an audacious blue dress and leather moccasins) roars and plows her way across the space like a steam train while she waits for an old classmate turned town thug, Paulie Perkins (Grant R. Krause), to report back after "doing" her no-good boyfriend.
In drops Mary Sue (Terri Heck), a ditzy, obnoxious church mouse with, as it turns out, quite a roar. She says things like "We're going to have to do that thing where we watch each other die, aren't we?" One thing leads to another, miscommunication abounds, and before you know it, the church mouse is covered in eggnog, and they're all wrestling on the couch — just in time for Mel to show up.
My favorite one-liners come from Paulie, the thug. When Mary Sue says, "I bet they never made you peanut butter balls in prison," he responds with "Not like you're thinking." Norma and Wanda also offers moments of metaphoric genius, such as a scene in which a couple argue over charges of infidelity while another character stands by bleeding profusely. Maniacally bizarre as their behavior may be, Norma and Wanda's family still manage to remind us of almost every family, including probably our own: we love each other the best we can, although we sometimes do a less than perfect job.
Norma and Wanda continues its run at the Purple Rose Theater Wednesdays through Sundays through March 19.