The Beverly Hillbillies
Buddy Ebsen was Jed Clampett. Irene Ryan was Granny. Trying to play Jed when you’re not really Buddy is like pretending you’re someone’s ma or pa when you sure-as-heckfire ain’t. However, depending on your talent for mimicry and parody, you may be able to execute such a dead-on impersonation that you actually end up being more entertaining than the original. Enter the actors of Reno Little Theatre in The Beverly Hillbillies.
The play opens exactly how the TV series began, in the cozy Clampett shack. Jed (Ron Roark) and Granny (Natalie Healy) talk about how Elly May (Shannon Wilson) is growing up—busting buttons on her shirt—awfully fast, and how she ought to start prowling for a husband rather that busting the chops of every boy she meets. In walks Elly May with a man from Midland Oil slung over her shoulder: “Can I keep him, pa?”
Jed responds that strangers aren’t for keeping; keeping is for things like puppies, kittens and raccoons. “But I’ve had dogs and cats,” she replies. “I’ve never had me a stranger.”
Wilson as Elly May—aloof, confrontational and always forthright in her outrage at being a girl—is actually better than the original. Wilson is one of the few actors who doesn’t faithfully imitate the pioneer character, which is a good thing. The TV-show Elly May was one of the more dull characters, no matter how good she looked in flannel.
Wilson seems very at home on stage. There’s often a general awkwardness that actors exhibit when they’re not part of the proceedings and are just sort of hanging around backstage, reacting mutedly to events. Wilson never has such moments. Whenever revelations and machinations are taking place that don’t involve her, Elly May is doing something natural, like stuffing her face with food or throwing “I’m gonna whoop your behind” glances at Jethro (Hug High junior Race Kennedy).
Granny is the biggest spoof of the bunch, with her voice always raised and fists always shaking. Memorizing all the bizarre lines that burst forth from Granny’s lips—"Your mouth goes like a whippoorwill’s behind in a whirlwind"—was surely a tedious task for Healy. There are about three times that Healy’s humorous Granny breaks the imaginary fourth wall to step forward and moralize to the audience. Her favorite high-horse topic is that no one should ever sign anything.
Jed’s characteristic monotone voice and his dignified anything-goes attitude are given perfect emphasis by Roark. Roark’s tone and inflection give the impression that he watched the first TV episode at least a dozen times: “He’s gonna pay me in some new kind of dollar … I’ve heard of gold dollars, silver dollars, paper dollars, but he said he’s gonna pay me in, uh, what did he call it, million dollars.”
After the hillbillies reach Californy, they meet the Drysdales (the skilled and funny John Coney and Marva Hellstrom) and Ms. Hathaway (Tamara Kuebler does the original actress’s hollow and nasally voice when giving long-winded eulogies about her days at Vassar without flaw). The family shortly finds itself in a quagmire when con-artists try to blackmail them out of their fortune.
For having the original Hillbilly legacy (if you’d call it that) to live up to, Reno Little Theatre pays fine tribute. Director Paul Dancer took what he knew was good and essential and left behind that which maybe didn’t work so well in the original. It’s worth your time to "come and listen to [this] story about a man named Jed."