Produced on Broadway in 1977, and set in 1975, “The Trip Back Down” opens with Bobby visiting his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. He’s returned to inform family and close friends of his plans to quit racing.
They’re not sympathetic. Bobby’s career was just about the best thing that ever happened to Mansfield. His consistent second-, third-, and fourth-place finishes don’t bother them . . . why should they bother him?
“The Trip Back Down” has the measurements of a major musical; 15 characters, perhaps 20 scenes — set in the past and the present — and two lengthy acts. The production lacks for an actual NASCAR vehicle, but a multipanel screen positioned above the stage displays footage of competitions from the late 1950s and early 1960s. We hear and see cars whipping around the track.
Between each scene, cast members move with the speed of a pit crew to introduce, remove, and reposition furniture. With these clever additions, director Terri Hanauer has enabled the audience at a small theater to get some sense of the racing experience.
The play is infused throughout with the hyper-masculine culture of NASCAR. When racers and crew members are not grabbing their own crotches, they’re grabbing at waitresses’ bottoms. Small provocations will cause men to put up their fists and, on occasion, follow up with punches.
Few members of a Blue State audience will find such antics appropriate. Still, this production, to its credit, does not condescend to the characters or convict them on charges of political incorrectness.
In the scenes where Bobby and his racing buddies drink beer from long-neck bottles and reminisce, Stabile is too laid-back and quiet. Even from the fifth row, it was at times difficult to hear his lines clearly. But when Bobby fights with his wife, verbally and physically, or argues with his disappointed dad, Stabile’s fury is frightening.
Eve Danzeisen, who plays Joanne, Bobby’s wife, is nearly as powerful. In this extended scenes, the production aspires to greatness.
Some theatergoers will judge Frank, Bobby’s portly brother, to be naïve or a dupe. He pretends not to notice his sexually frustrated wife openly flirting with other men, and he has only love for his handsome, heroic sibling.
But Frank has us fooled. He possesses the confidence of a man who actually knows who he is and cares not at all what others may think about him. As played by Kevin Brief, Frank projects a basic humanity that will be a delightful surprise to those members of the audience wary of seeing another American drama about internal family turmoil.
Frank’s wife Barbara (Meredith Thomas) conducts herself in a manner that suggests she’s the intellectual and cultural superior to all the others. Thomas speaks her lines with a kind of highbrow resignation that would work well in a play about Ivy League adulterers. She is riveting in a scene where Barbara’s exploding sexuality threatens to tear the town apart.
Among the rest of the cast members, who are all fine, I especially liked Karl Ebergen’s red-faced neurosis in the role of Chuck, who idolizes Bobby, and Robb Derringer’s country-fried strutting as Super Joe Weller.
“The Trip Back Down” is at the Whitefire Theatre through March 29. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for students with IDs.
To order tickets, call (323) 960-7712 or go online at www.plays411.com/trip. The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.