There is nothing subtle about This Side of the Dirt. It has a little bit of everything. It is parochial, but also perceptive and prophetic. It has death, tears, sex, snakes, bullets, pigs’ blood, scatology, and blow jobs. And love. This is quintessential, tongue-in-cheek South Texas, by South Texans, for the rest of us.
Beautifully structured and written by Austin's own Tito Beveridge of Tito’s Handmade Vodka, the play is well produced, directed, and acted. It even features excellent local music by Shawn Pander and Denny Fur as prelude and transition.
The main storyline follows the grieving process of ranching heiress Jean Ann after the death of her father, Papo. Multiple storylines revolve around this and reveal interesting quirks and emerging conflicts in contemporary culture as juxtaposed with traditional Texas ranching culture.
To keep it totally weird, Beveridge has two stoners talking about how we are all made of stardust and fantastic one-liners such as "abstinence is not a sexual orientation." He deftly weaves and resolves all of the stories into a hopeful and cosmic ending. Very satisfying.
Jonna Juul Hansen expertly carries the heavy load of portraying Jean Ann, who evolves nicely in fits and starts from beginning to end. Her South Texas accent is as authentic as her deliberate efforts to be cool and politically correct. Mark Hernandez, who plays the family’s trusty hired help, is truly outstanding; he's the only one the audience can really trust.
Beth Shea is captivating and compassionate as Aunt Sally, whose over-the-top promiscuity is soon forgotten because she's so likable. And Wray Crawford plays Jean Ann's emotionally unsupported husband, Jimmy, with gusto.
Stepsiblings Anthony (Jae McCain) and Jenny (Jennifer Caplan) convincingly represent the millennials and capture much of the irony in our evolving youth culture. All the while, and in spite of the craziness erupting around them, they are resolutely caring and genuine.
The choices made by director Ty Roberts give the characters' stories unexpected punch. It is also quite apparent that Roberts has encouraged collaboration by the cast in presenting brush country idiosyncrasies, vernacular, and mannerisms along the way, which never feel contrived.
Of course, Tito's Vodka appears onstage at critical moments. It is also served before, during (intermission), and after the production, which makes the audience good natured and ready to laugh. The outbursts are nonstop, and sometimes quite loud with even a few knowing, and possibly inappropriate, guffaws.
This is our local culture at its best. Don't miss it.
This Side of the Dirt runs Thursday through Saturday on June 9-11 and 16-18 at The Dougherty Arts Center. Tickets are $35.