By Emily J. Weitz
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas has always been an eyebrow raiser, since it first opened on Broadway in 1978. That’s one of the reasons director Michael Disher, who brings the show to the Southampton Cultural Center for the next three weeks, wanted to stage the production locally. It spurs conversation, and gets people riled up. And many of the issues raised are as pertinent today as ever. Perhaps at the forefront is a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.
“I was discussing the underbelly of ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ with diehard, judgmental friends,” says Disher, “who find the idea of prostitution repulsive. I began to examine why some feel it is repulsive, others acceptable and still others deem it a societal necessity.”
These are the questions that Disher hopes to raise through the performance, and conversations after the curtain falls should be lively.
“The show is based on a true story,” says Disher. “The Chicken Ranch ran for a long, long time in La Grange, Texas. It was a local institution that provided a service to the community.”
At first read, there’s something mildly offensive about the idea of this kind of community service, but Disher goes deeper to discuss the reduced rates of rapes and the medical care given to these women. In a way, he said, it gave them the power to choose how they used their bodies and when.
When the cast first met to talk about the script, Disher asked some of the actors what they thought about their characters, and how they got to this position.
“I asked some of the female cast members why they felt their characters had chosen this path,” he says. “And more often than not, the response was to be in control of their bodies. Many believed their characters to be victims of rape or incest of both. What they felt The Chicken Ranch and Mona Stangley provided was a protection and family few had known.”
When you start to look more closely at the individual stories of each woman, it’s much harder to maintain that hard line of right and wrong, said Disher.
“It’s easy for us to judge other people,” says Disher, “but some of these women had no options. Wasn’t it better that they found a home where they had access to doctors, where they chose to do what they wanted with their bodies? It’s a dicey question, and as debatable as abortion. Who has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body?”
Disher has put on this production before, about 10 years ago at Southampton College. He said thoroughly enjoyed it the first time, but says working with a more mature cast has changed the process and the product.
“It’s been quite different,” he says. “There’s an element of maturity that, when you attach to sexual subject matter, it’s very different.”
Valerie Dilorenzo will take the stage as Miss Mona, the Madame of the establishment. She’ll act opposite Daniel Becker, who plays the town sheriff.
“The two of them are quite good together,” says Disher. “There’s a terrific relationship that should have, could have, happened between Mona and the sheriff. And there’s a great amount of solidarity amongst the girls. You bring those things to the front, and it brings more realism. I’m not saying their choices were right, but I am also not saying their choices were wrong.”
The cast is large, with 24 actors in all.
“We have, in the Chicken Ranch, a whole assortment of options,” Disher says with a laugh. “All ages, all shapes, all sizes. It’s a great cast.”
Disher feels that the movie production, which was produced in 1982 and starred Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, stripped the show of its humanity. This version, however, starts with a historical overview and depicts the “profession” with an element of dignity.
“What I would like to think we’ve done here,” says Disher, “is brought that humanity back to the front.”
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas will be performed at the Southampton Cultural Center (25 Ponds Lane, Southampton) from Thursday, October 17 through Sunday, November 3. Tickets are between $15 and $25 and are available in advance at www.scc-arts.org, or at the door 30 minutes prior to curtain.