You only have one more chance to experience one of the best things you will see this year at Fringe: Tammy Faye’s Final Audition. It’s difficult for me to imagine that you could see a more spectacular performance than Shelley Delaney’s as the somewhat notorious, much-beloved, often ridiculed, and supremely unfortunate Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. The play in which the performance occurs, written by Merri Biechler, is thoughtful, enjoyable, and poignant, and the production, directed by Dennis Lee Delaney, is extremely accomplished. If you can get to it Tuesday night at 6:15, do yourself a favor and don’t miss it.
Fringe schedules are often filled with pieces that riff off of pop culture. Frequently they are jokey burlesques that are having fun with familiar, sometimes laughable, personalities. This is not one of those plays. Sure, it gets comic mileage out of Tammy Faye’s oversize personality, the gaudiness of her presentation, and the contrast between her inveterate optimism and her troubled life. But it is more concerned with exploring several fascinating themes that her story illuminates.
The Tammy Faye we meet in the play’s first moments is a cheerful, inviting, slightly artificial presence whose warmth is almost smothering. She’s also controlling and canny, acutely aware of what she will need to project her persona through a TV camera, and also of what she will need to do to get what she wants. She is desperate to regain relevance and validation through a comeback project: Tammy Faye Wins at Life.
The play subtlety implies that this audition is the confused aspiration of a woman, ravaged by illness and slightly impaired by medication, who is looking back on her life and trying to put it into some kind of order, and to give it some kind of meaning.
The portrait is respectful and complex. It presents a central character who is vain, often oblivious, and certainly self-justifying, but who is also motivated on an important level by the desire to help and inspire others. She has a strong and admirable impulse toward inclusiveness, despite existing in a world of evangelism that frequently defined itself by judging others harshly. It presents a person who convinces us that she is motivated by a genuine spiritual vocation, but who is self-aware enough at the end to question it and herself.
Tammy Faye’s Final Audition
by Merri Biechler
Directed by Dennis Delaney
Details and tickets
Contradictions abound. She is trotted out as a kind of performing seal while the televangelist empire put in place by her husband Jim Bakker is ascendent. But the persona created by and for her is defined by ingeniousness. The play explores that contradiction, which many others in the spotlight must have felt, between a perceived and an actual reality.
”She doesn’t have a mouth,” she observes about the puppet through which she communicates thoughts and feelings she cannot otherwise articulate. Yet she colludes in the fantasy erected around her, addicted to a need to define herself within the perimeters of her notoriety.
Her appeal to a gay following is defined not only by her impulse toward inclusiveness, but also because she is camp without realizing that she is camp, which is the best kind of camp, to paraphrase a terrific line from the play.
That line is spoken in the show by Jim J Bullock, Tammy Faye’s co-star in a mid-90s talk show comeback. David Haugen plays him, as well as her two husbands and her son. The conceit of the play is that these men from her past will be interviewed during an audition broadcast for her new show.
I don’t know enough about the actual woman to know how accurate to her life the play is. It conforms to the broad outlines of which I am aware. I did learn from the program that second husband Roe Messner followed first husband Jim Bakker to federal prison, for fraud presumably involving the Bakker empire. That’s not mentioned in the play, in which Messner is a presented as a figure who attempts to ground the dying Tammy Faye through his sincere faith in Christianity and his devotion to her. The sequence during which they describe their awareness of their attraction and the development of their romantic bond will be, for me, among the most memorable, thanks not only to the writing, but also to both performances. The play has a few lines that feel like asides providing expositional facts, but damn few. It’s definitely not one of those clunky bio-plays that feel like dramatized footnotes.
By the time Tammy Faye dons a robe, echoing an earlier speech during which she talks about meeting a Native American man who is preparing to die, we are fully aware of how smart and resonant the play is. It will be the rare theatre-goer who watches this woman grapple, coming to terms with her life, her choices, her addictions, and her failings, but who doesn’t reflect on his or her own life, triumphs, disappointments, and mortality.
The production is presented by Brick Monkey Theater Ensemble, which calls itself Southeast Ohio’s professional theater company, and most of those involved are on faculty at Ohio University in Athens. All involved should share in this impressive triumph.
But, as I said, it is the central performance that is most awe-inspiring. Shelley Delaney is fearless, fearsome, and thoroughly transporting. There is nary a moment when she doesn’t have you in the palm of her actor’s hand, and she takes us to surprising and powerful places. She turns on a dime when called upon. It’s a performance that impresses an audience while honoring her subject.