The famous forty-something TV star Myra Marlowe is taking a year off. She has rented a house in the hick backwater of Beaver Haven in Maine, determined to grow tomatoes and write her autobiography. To avoid unwanted attention she’s using her real name, Myrtle Durdle, and she has brought all her old character costumes with her, intending to bury them. But it looks as if her efforts to write are going to be frustrated by her odd, meddlesome neighbors. And if the title of the play is anything to go by, it’s going to be A Bad Year for Tomatoes too.
John Patrick (1905-95) is better known for writing the stage and screen versions of The Teahouse of the August Moon (1953 and 1956) than for this comedy, but it was his previous major successes that created the conditions for Tomatoes to bloom. The play was first staged in 1974 at the John Patrick Dinner Theater in North Royalton, Ohio, a venue that simply wouldn’t have existed if Patrick had remained a struggling minor playwright. In that first production, the role of Myra was played by Rhoda Rosen, seen here (bottom right) with the three actresses playing her awful Beaver Creek neighbors:
When, early on, one of those neighbors tries to foist herself on Myra as an unwanted house guest during a marital rough patch, Myra has to think quickly to find a polite form of discouragement. Her answer is to resurrect one of her former characters, Sister Sadie, a ‘buck-toothed idiot girl’ she played when she was a teenager – only this version of Sister Sadie has the mind of a homicidal child in an adult body that’s not at all dissimilar to Myra’s own. She records some bloodcurdling ‘Sadie dialog’ for the neighbors to overhear, but sooner or later Sadie herself will to have to put in an appearance. How lucky it is that Myra brought those costumes with her to Beaver Haven!
Sister Sadie is a grotesque figure in a blonde fright wig, with heavy spectacles and protruding teeth, and she has a tendency to look for scissors with which to cut off people’s ears. Myra considers her to be one of her great performances. But one character isn’t in the least impressed by this nonsense. He’s Piney, the play’s other grotesque, a malodorous backwoodsman who delivers manure and firewood when he can find time between killing hogs and farming skunks. In the original production, he was played by Rich Grinnell. When Myra tries to get rid of him with Sister Sadie, Piney simply grabs her, takes the scissors away, forces her to sit down and holds her by the wrist, intending to keep her like that until Myra herself returns to deal with the crazy sibling. It could be a long wait… so Myra’s powers of improvisation come into play, with results that are as regrettable for her as they are enjoyable for the audience.
MYRA (SADIE): What would you do if I kicked you in the shins and ran?
PINEY: Whup you.
MYRA (SADIE): You wouldn’t dare!
PINEY: Try me.
(Myra rises and kicks him in the shins. He promptly puts her over his knees and spanks her.)
MYRA (SADIE): HELP! HELP! MRS HARPER! MRS GUMP! HELP! WILLA MAE! ANYONE! I’M BEING KILLED!
Those are, of course, the names of the same meddlesome neighbors she’s been trying to keep away with the Sister Sadie act.
(Piney shoves her to her feet.)
PINEY: Said I would.
MYRA (SADIE): My sister will have you arrested for daring to lay a finger on my – my person.
PINEY: Tell her.
MYRA (SADIE): I will. Just you wait.
(He blocks her escape and points to a chair.)
(Myra sits gingerly and waits.)
MYRA (SADIE): You can’t treat me this way. I’m crazy.
PINEY: Who ain’t?
Unfortunately for Myra, the Sister Sadie stratagem backfires, and not just because this happened to her…
The presence of a deranged woman in the house doesn’t secure her the privacy she wants, only stimulates neighborhood interest. Willa the would-be witch plans to cure Sadie by magic, and sets about gathering the necessary herbs. Mrs Harper and Mrs Gump decide what she needs is a session with their fundamentalist, faith-healing, snake-handling backwoods pastor, Brother Leviticus. And there’s one other kind of interest nobody was banking on…
When Piney next comes to Myra’s house, he has smartened himself up and is clutching a bouquet of swamp lilies. Spanking has led to ‘sparking’: bizarrely, he finds Sadie ‘purdy’. ‘Nice behind, too,’ he adds. ‘Solid.’
Myra has to think quickly to extricate herself from the mess she has gotten herself into. So she tells Piney the sad news that Sadie finally proved too much of a handful: Myra has sent her away to be cared for in an institution in Boston. The trouble with that is, despite all the nosy neighbors in Beaver Creek, nobody saw her leave. But what they did hear was:
The sounds of violence, along with cries for help.
And, crucially, the words ‘I’m being killed!’
And since Myra also recently buried something in the back yard, the inference is obvious and the Sheriff is called. It’s no good Myra explaining that the burial was only her old costumes, marking the end of a phase in her life. ‘You arrest me and I’ll sue this town for every cent it’s got,’ she threatens. ‘Won’t be much,’ replies the Sheriff laconically.
It will be no great surprise to learn that things sort themselves out quite easily once Myra has established who she really is, even if it does involve digging up her back yard and ruining her tomato plants. What’s more interesting to notice is how the second half of the plot depends, in several different ways, on just one moment.
So, just to recap… What makes Piney fall for Sister Sadie? This does:
And once Piney’s amorous interest leads Myra to decide that Sadie has outlived her usefulness, what makes the other locals imagine that she has murdered her sister? This does:
(Or, at least, the sounds of it emanating from the house!)
So the spanking is the keystone of a very deft piece of plot construction. Or putting it another way, A Bad Year for Tomatoes is actually a rather good play which (let’s face it) can’t be said for every play that features in this series. It’s not a profound play, but it’s well-made and entertaining, perfectly judged for a dinner theater audience whether in the mid-1970s or now. And that helps to explain why it’s still so popular with amateur groups all over North America, some of whose efforts are uploaded to YouTube from time to time:
The next one is from a performance at the Ringgold Playhouse, Georgia, in February 2015, with Ronald King and Sherry Dee Allen:
And another thing going for it is that, unlike in many another play, the spanking scene is completely compatible with modern liberal sensibilities. Let’s be realistic: in this day and age, we are unlikely to see many productions of plays which recommend that women should be spanked, but that doesn’t mean we won’t ever see plays in which they are spanked. So it’s pertinent that this is a play whose appeal and humor come from pitting modern urban sophistication against the backwoods peculiarities of Beaver Creek. And look who it is that’s doing the spanking:
Piney is the hickest of the hicks, and the spanking comes out of his conception of the world: the play offers it as a farcical, enjoyable spectacle, but doesn’t endorse it as ‘normal’ behavior or the ‘right’ outcome for Myra – though equally, since Myra is being sneaky with her Sister Sadie ruse, it’s something she brings on herself and doesn’t come across as abuse. Just for once, it’s a non-consensual spanking that isn’t a guilty pleasure. How refreshing!