When most writers set their sights on small-town rural America, they tend to veer toward two ultimately condescending dramatic extremes: salt-of-the-earth valor in the face of challenges both natural and societal ("Don't worry, Sally Mae, we'll fight off those Klansmen and hold off that flood because we're good!"); or lurid, brutal, incest-laden stories of ignorance and strife.
To All Men Named Jackson bypasses both traps, opting instead to portray a series of sympathetic characters, and the way that both chance and choice determine how the narrative of life plays out. The action takes place in rural Missouri, in the By the Wayside Café, where sisters Maureen (Karen Weber) and Midge (Karen Wiese-Thompson) manage the greasy spoon along with Maureen's daughter Leona (Lisa Bol). Leona, by popular consensus the hottest young girl in town, has begun dating Pete (Dustin Gingerich), who is back home only until he lands a veterinary residency and blows their one-horse town.
Playwright Karla Reck draws out these characters with economy. Leona flirts with the local boys, who all obviously adore her, and Midge charms as the wisecracking aunt who lives for local gossip. Yet the past hangs over everyone, and we soon learn the source of the sadness that Weber projects in Maureen's eyes: the sudden death, 20 years before, of Leona's dynamic and charismatic father, Jackson. Maureen has not ceased to mourn this fellow; in fact, the very mention of his name is enough to send her retreating to the café kitchen.
Soon matters take a soap-opera turn when pal Frank (Nathan Suprenant) makes a drunken pass at Leona when they're alone. Leona rebuffs him, but Bol gives the convincing impression that her character has to fight against considerable desire in order to shoot him down. From here on, Frank is on a quest to wrest Leona from Pete, and it is to Suprenant's credit that the sequence of events is as bittersweet as it is potentially dire. Suprenant lends Frank a hollow-eyed creepiness, but he also hints at the sweetness of a guy who dated above his level in high school and is convinced he can do it again—making it work this time, of course.
You keep waiting for a gun to show up, or a dirty secret to surface, but Reck stakes her dramatic weight on how things turn out in the normal course of things. When Pete gets a job offer in Oklahoma and asks Leona to marry him, we seem primed for an ending involving, say, a shotgun, a revelation of unexpected parentage, perhaps death by Ford F-150. But it doesn't come. Instead, the work becomes a rather lukewarm referendum on romantic love.
Leona comes to the realization that none of the boys who profess to love her understands who she really is. An initial reaction comes to mind: This is news? As for her second conundrum—whether it is best to hold out for romantic bliss or settle for something more practical—one thinks: Well, you work on that one. In the meantime, can I get some coffee over here? And what kind of pie do you have?
This play evokes flashbacks from just about any work that posits true love against practicality and settling for less. But the early going is positively ebullient with chemistry and humor: The initial scene, in which we meet everyone, is particularly infectious. And the interaction between the women characters is emotionally precise and convincing. Weber's Maureen emerges with a wrenching catharsis, and Bol's Leona turns blithe sweetness into at least a modicum of wisdom. There are no little lives, this show seems to argue, only lives made small by the people who live them.