It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off actor Robert Mollohan in the role of Richie, a pathologically violent Elvis impersonator whose dreams of fame are obstructed by blind rage. In Jesse Boy, a play penned by Mollohan, dangerous aggression manifests in unspeakable abuse, and intended acts of love misfire, landing squarely in the realm of demoralization and destruction. Superior writing, acting, and directing converge here, turning a storm of pain into a riveting piece of theatre.
The faux-wood-paneled walls and grimy carpeting of Richie’s Appalachian trailer set the scene. Elvis paraphernalia covers walls and tables, a quirky décor detail that speaks of an off-beat but potentially happy clan. This feeling of cozy good cheer is shaken but not shattered when we meet Richie’s live-in girlfriend, Abigayle (an entirely convincing Jaimi Paige), who in the opening scene squabbles with a bill collector while remaining on the bright side of things as she tends to Jesse (Zach Brooks), her mentally challenged brother.
Enter Richie. Things go from quaint to overwhelmingly dark in a matter of minutes. All is not even close to well in this drab double-wide, a home built on the grim foundations of desperation, self-loathing, and sinister impulses. Richie’s abuse spans the violence spectrum – be prepared to watch women dragged around by the hair, and a helpless child fall victim to the whims of a maniac.
Richie’s father, Red (a captivating Chris Mulkey) sheds some light on the roots of Richie’s anger, revealing in artful dribs and drabs his absenteeism during his son’s formative years, and a lifelong commitment to alcoholism. But even when Red does his best to take a second stab at fatherhood, Richie is too damaged to accept.
Skillfully woven into this tale of family dysfunction is the tale of a determined dreamer. Richie derives most of his joy from impersonating Elvis, donning the King’s skin-tight outfits and performing for crowds whenever he can. When Las Vegas beckons our anti-hero to The Flamingo for an Elvis contest that yields cash prizes – Richie deposits all his machismo energy into renditions of such hits as “Blue Suede Shoes,” desperately clawing at a chance to live the life he’s imagined. This subplot carries with it the genius of the entire play – though Richie is a monster of a father-figure, mate and son, we see his boyish good cheer channeled into his iconic alter-ego and we can’t help but sympathize.
Director Karen Landry creates a world where volatility endlessly lurks, tensions run high, and moments of sweetness temper the gloom. Roberta Christenson’s set locates us perfectly and yields an intimate connection between the players and the audience.
Ruskin Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica. Call (310)397-3244.
Mirror Contributing Writeramy@smmirror.com