I felt hostile when I entered the American Theater Friday night. I wasn’t ready for entertainment. I preferred slouched pity and ready cynicism rather than excitement. But then something happened. I paid three bucks for a fountain soda, listened to a tune from the Charleston bluegrass band Flatt City, and realized nothing was going to change because I was in a bad mood.
And for good reason the cast of The Fowler Family Radio Hour didn’t pay attention to me either. Instead they appeared onstage and delivered a sincere, quietly enthusiastic performance for their debut show at the Piccolo Fringe Festival.
The audience was spare and the energy in the theater—no thanks to me—was dim. But the cast cut through the morose fog, riffing on politics, public radio, and the notion of family with undeniable charm.
Set in the fictional town of Henley, The Fowler Family Radio Hour fuses music, dance, and funny, revealing vignettes. When the clan’s patriarch Thaddeus Hickock announces his plan to capture a new town council seat, the show sets forth with a radio program that includes political debates, risky cowboy dance numbers, a choreographed aerobics routine, and a murder ballad.
The six-person cast includes an ambiguously gay cowboy, a rebelliously masculine, leather-jacketed youth, a tunnel-faced female with blonde hair, and a guitar player with long hands, suspenders, and a slight paunch. Essie May Hickock, the hen of the family, shows off white pantyhose and a crass sense of humor, and finally, Thaddeus himself is a denim-vested reasonable type with political ambition. Put these players in motion, set them to a fiddle and some stirring family interludes, and wait for the embarrassing moments and shocks to unfold, all for your amusement.
All of this arrives, of course, because of one simple fact: We see ourselves in these characters. Dressed in our best clothes — our hair combed and teeth clean — we nonetheless remain in the clutches of our family. The reason The Fowler Family works is because it is an honest account of family life, complete with likable and outrageous characters. The show is delicious whiff of comic absurdity and balance.
By the end of the performance, as the cast sang their last number, I caught myself laughing out of turn. I realized my mood had flattened. I was happy, nostalgic for my own family’s quirks, and grateful for the song now echoing through the theater.
“The Fowler Family Radio Hour/ Always sweet and never sour.”
Soon I began to hum the tune.
Still at it when I left the theater, I decided I had found a new mantra to ease my hostile ways.
The Fowler Family Radio Hour • Piccolo Fringe Festival • $15 • 1 Hour-May 24 at 7 p.m.; May 26 at 6 p.m. • American Theater, 446 King St. • (888) 374-2656