Johnny Simons’ ongoing love affair with nostalgia comes across loud and clear with his latest at Hip Pocket Theatre, Sassafrass, Poppy Cock, and Prittleprattle With Lum and Abner. It’s inspired by episodes from and characters in the long-running radio show Lum and Abner, which ran from the early 1930s to the mid-’50s, created by Chester Lauck and Norris Goff.
Simons brings back several of the residents of Pine Ridge, Ark., framed as a dream sequence for Jimmy (Quentin McGown). He’s in the hospital in an unconscious state when he sees his late, beloved Mema (Peggy Bott Kirby) — a recurring Simons character — who takes him to Pine Ridge to meet some of her favorite people from the fictional radio show she loved.
Lum (Michael Joe Goggans) and Abner (Gary Payne) go about their daily fussiness at their Jot’em Down Store, and decide to invite friends over for a discussion of art and culture. It will require vittles and some preparation.
The gang arrives, including Cedric Weehunt (Rick Gutierrez), who is the only “kid” in his third-grade class with a Social Security card; Mousey Grey (Brian Cook); Granpappy Spears (James Warila); Squire Skimp (Seth Johnston); man-of-few-words Ulysses S. Quincy (Harris Kirby); and the womenfolk, Little Pearl Peabody (Kristi Ramos Toler), Lizbeth Peabody (Dena Phillips), shy Penelope (Julie Ballew) and the trollop Sister Simpson (Louann Gary).
Even without the association with their radio-show characters, these are all types we’ve seen from Simons before, which makes them doubly familiar. That’s a good thing. This is not one of Hip Pocket’s ventures into literature or folklore or inventive theatrical techniques; it’s all about the way-back machine in Simons’ head. That’s a fun place to be if you kick back and let it roll.
There is one long scene, though, that is maybe the funniest scene Simons has written in a while. It happens as Lum leads Abner and the other men on a discussion of high culture. They move from the poetry of Wordsworth to the music of Beethoven to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Cynical minds might see it as poking fun at uncultured types who don’t know much about fine art (“high class poetry don’t have to rhyme,” Abner points out). But if you know Simons, you realize it’s his way of commenting on high-culture types who sit around and blow smoke about the art without saying much of any interest. When Ulysses does his occasional timid response of “OK,” it’s maybe the biggest laugh you’ll have on a stage this year.
And lest anyone thinks it’s supposed to be serious, Michael H. Price accompanies the whole thing on an organ with some well-done, melodramatic soap opera music, which sets the tone just as the same kind of music would have done for any radio serial.
As for the cigar box of roly polies and dust that Abner keeps referring to, look at it as a sneak peek at Hip Pocket’s last show of the current season, Fuzzbug Follies, opening in October.