Colorful characters attempting connection fuels Lee Blessing’s folksy1983 comedy “Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music,” the name of the Houston bar at the center of this simplistic summertime diversion at the Dayton Theatre Guild.
Tough, hot-tempered ex-biker Jim Stools (David Hallowren) owns the bar in question which has undergone a renovation at the hands of his girlfriend Eve Wilfong (Angela Riley). Looking to appeal to the heart as well as the wallet, Eve brings a renewed sense of identity to the establishment, a more welcoming sense of purpose because she feels “there is a power in a message.” While monitoring the bar’s clientele, Eve does her best to offer words of wisdom to her worrisome, peculiar niece Catherine Empanger (Sara Naderer), a novice nun prone to profane outbursts beyond her control. While Eve and Catherine strengthen their bond, dim-witted ditch-digger Roy Manual (Jared Mola) persistently woos Catherine.
Small talk about life and love is huge in this lesser glimpse into Blessing’s character-conscious universe, which can be a source of enlightening, thought-provoking dramas (“A Walk in the Woods,” “Going to St. Ives”) or poignant family fare (“Independence,” “Eleemosynary”). The goal of “Nice People” is to merely entertain, which it does, although I wonder what this play could have been if given room to grow more cohesive beyond Blessing’s odd decision to separate genders for the majority of the action, particularly devoting the entire first act to Jim and Roy’s momentum-stalling ruminations on trucks, women and academia.
Thankfully, director Ralph Dennler’s excellently authentic cast smoothly grasps the eccentricities and nuances within this relatable tale. Hallowren, gruff yet astute in one of his strongest leading performances, epitomizes the frustration of a man who allowed a woman to change his existence for the better even though he may not appreciate it every single second of every day. The terrifically earthy Riley, injecting her dialogue with a gentle, Southern wistfulness recalling Horton Foote or Tennessee Williams, captivates as Eve honestly discusses her past heartache and ultimate liberation in an attempt to make Catherine view the world differently. In her Guild debut, the delightful Naderer brings a proper amount of reticence and perplexity to her portrayal of a tightly-wound woman yearning for more. As Roy, the splendid Mola, one of the best chameleons in the Miami Valley, avoids becoming a tiresome, backwards caricature by completely immersing himself into his gawky role physically and mentally. With charming moxie and geeky bravado, Mola keeps Roy’s quest for love incredibly endearing. As Jason, Eve’s mischievous son and Jim’s menace, Noah Walters, in his Guild debut, does an amiable job in an underwritten capacity. Additionally, Blake Senseman’s commendable scenic design is greatly accented by a weathered pickup truck center stage that seemingly becomes Hallowren’s annoying sidekick.
“Nice People” lacks impactful vim and verve, but fine acting and an engaging atmosphere keeps this breezy production fittingly lighthearted.
“Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music” continues through Sept. 7 at the Dayton Theatre Guild, 430 Wayne Ave., Dayton. Act One: 35 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $19 for adults, $17 for seniors, and $12 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 278-5993 or visit www.daytontheatreguild.org