Tammy Faye’s Final Audition is a whirlwind about a woman whose iconic eyelashes, televangelical devotion, and legal scandal have secured her a place in brightly lit pop culture heaven. The play is all at once an audition run for a new talk show, a portrait of a hard and complex life, and recollections of the past by a dying woman who is no longer able to keep hold of a reality that has always been fraught, performed, and mediated. It was also hilarious.
This may be a two-actor show, but David Haugen deftly portrays four significant men in Tammy Faye’s life. Shelley Delaney plays Tammy Faye with incredible energy, careening across major highs and lows, painful regret and powerful confidence. This is the unraveling of both a persona and a person.
The first man we meet is an older Roe Messner, Tammy Faye’s second husband and a building contractor known for his churches and for constructing much of Heritage USA, a Christian theme park founded and built by Tammy Faye and her first husband, Jim Bakker. Roe is caring for Tammy Faye who is weakened by cancer and chemotherapy; they go through their nightly routine of slippers, warm milk, and prayer.
The second man is Jim J. Bullock, an openly gay actor with whom Tammy Faye hosted a short-run talk show in 1996. Jim J. bursts into the scene as a guest on her new show. The actor was so quickly and surprisingly transformed from soft and quiet Roe into a fabulous big drag version of Tammy Faye herself that I started clapping, delighted, along with the fake applause track.
Jim J. visits Tammy Faye in the fantasy talk show, cracking a joke about Grindr and they reflect together on her life. They talk about why it is that she has become a queer icon, and play act a scene from 1985 in which Tammy Faye interviewed a gay minister living with AIDS well before, Jim. J said, Ronald Reagan even said the word ‘AIDS’ on television.
This was one of the most interesting scenes because of multiple layers of role-playing, and because it dealt with Tammy Faye’s cultural impact as much as personal life. The image of Jim J. as a larger-than-life Tammy Faye, a double, and the “real” Tammy Faye having excited conversation is going to stick with me for a long time. However, this was also one of the more confusing transitions where a bit more dialogue context would have been helpful to set the scene.
Jamie Charles, her son, makes a short but powerful appearance in a scene dealing with multiple kinds of addiction. Roe returns periodically when the narrative settles back into the present, where we might find Tammy Faye delivering a moving monologue at her makeup table (of course!). The fourth man to appear is Tammy Faye’s first husband, Jim Bakker. She visits him in prison, at their home, and way back when they first met.
Overall, Tammy Faye’s Final Audition is relentless, a force of energies alternately touchingly sad and truly funny. On the flipside, it was also relentless in that there was an enormous amount of emotional content bursting the seams of this production. Any single vignette could be expanded on into a work in itself, and indeed many of the scenes deserved more time and space to breathe.
Tammy Faye Bakker Messner is a complex subject, and fittingly the narrative is layered and non-linear. The ending of the work is the end of her life; it is powerful, climactic, heart wrenching, and brilliantly performed.
To those unfamiliar with Tammy Faye’s long and complex life and career, a little Google research will be a great help, and be sure to read over the short but helpful timeline in the program.
It is a little bit A Christmas Carol, as Tammy Faye receives visitations and relives critical moments of her past, but the result for Tammy Faye, unlike Scrooge, is imminent death. The audition, then, for Tammy Faye, is not for a role in this life.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Tammy Faye’s Final Audition is written by Merri Biechler and directed by Dennis Delaney, and is a production by Brick Monkey Theater Company from Southeast Ohio.
A preview article on DCMetroTheaterArts.