Set in an upper-middle-class home in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Yellow tells the story of married couple Kate and Bobby Westmoreland, their teenage children, Dayne and Gracie, Kendall Parker, and Kendall’s mother, a Protestant religious zealot, who calls herself “Sister Timothea.” At the outset, life seems to be going pretty well for the Westmorelands. Everything isn’t perfect, but Dayne has a bright future as a college athlete, and after 19 years of conjugal bliss, Kate and Bobby are still amorous and demonstrative. Kate is more libidinous, while Bobby (the high school football coach) gets all teary and choked up, when gazing at the moon or reflecting on his loved ones. *(Please note the rest of this critique includes spoilers.)
This is just one example of the role reversal that pervades Yellow, or, at the very least, a challenge to the way we often see Southerners depicted. Daughter Gracie is solipsistic and histrionic, which is less surprising than older brother Dayne, who must stand as one of the most enlightened and emotionally available straight jocks in the history of the arts. In an act of sheer, altruistic charity, he kisses his “adopted” brother Kendall on the mouth, without a twinge of fear or hesitation. That particular moment alone sets Yellow apart from so many plays. But then, the entire Westmoreland family is so much more evolved than Bible Belt families we’re used to seeing. They’re Episcopalian. The mother is a psychotherapist, while the father never finished higher education. When Kendall is abandoned by his homophobic mother, they welcome him into their home. When adultery rears its ugly head, the father is not the culprit. Even their transgressions are emancipated.
In the second act, it becomes clear that Dayne’s rare liver disease is probably going to be fatal. While yellow may be the color of sunshine, cheeriness, warmth, it is also the color of jaundice, which Kate identifies in the first act. This catastrophic situation throws the family into a tailspin, but it also italicizes the buried, unresolved issues lurking between the characters. While Dayne moves gradually towards his demise, he only becomes more and more kindly, tender and frail. The others are forced to struggle with their flaws and mistakes, a wrenching and draining process. The curious culmination of this plot is that the death of Dayne, this exquisite human being, imparts grace on his sister, mom, dad, “brother” Kendall, and even Kendall’s hideous mother. Dayne’s passing foments reconciliation. Just when we’re certain chaos will prevail, the impact of Dayne’s nearly flawless existence inspires redemption.
Sister Timothea, while certainly recognizable to anyone exposed to the interminable, pathological exhortations of rabid Christian ideologues, felt just too fabricated for me. I am positively thrilled that Yellow features an intelligent, nurturing family that eschews primitive, infantile reasoning, and better yet, understands same-gender sexuality is no big deal. I understand that Timothea isn’t supposed to be likable, but she seems wooden, even for a Bible Thumper. By accident or design, most of the trouble that comes to the Westmoreland household is caused by the womenfolk. Gracie is in a constant state of upheaval, Timothea slaps her son around for starring in Oklahoma (perhaps he should have held out for Godspell). Just when you think circumstances couldn’t get any worse, Kate confesses her infidelity to Bobby, after dutifully conceding she would advise her own clients against such reckless confidence. After careful retrospection, possible motives begin to emerge, but these only make her actions seem all the more unconscionable.
Del Shores’ Yellow is a strange, deeply moving, in some ways groundbreaking play. There were aspects that I found problematic, and yet so much of the piece felt quirky (in the best sense) and fresh, that I was willing to forgive its weaknesses. The second act worked much better than the first, but, this is very often in the case, perhaps because so many first acts function as exposition. The launching pad for the true core of content. It’s not easy to sort through spiritual issues without being didactic, and it’s difficult to deal with tragedy without being manipulative, which I think Del Shores achieves. There are aspects of the subtext that seem dubious, but, that being said, when the curtain fell for the last time, I was overwhelmed by this drama’s power, depth and accessibility.
Uptown Players presents Yellow, playing February 22nd through March 10th, 2013. The Kalita Humphreys Theater. 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. www.uptownplayers.org