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Sunday, January 17, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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One-Woman Show -- Rebecca Wells Is Still In Control After All These Years

REBECCA WELLS IS A LITTLE SCARY and more than a little ambitious - a little old child of the South who doesn't just write, but wrestles down some heavy themes: addiction, child abuse, racism and the ongoing question of whether there is a God and does he care about us at all.

What's scary is how funny she can make it all seem.

In Wells' new book, "Little Altars Everywhere" (Broken Moon Press), hear the reminiscences of one Siddalee Walker, a Louisiana girl trying to penetrate the mysteries of Catholicism:

"My all-time favorite, though, is St. Cecilia. She was from a rich family and they made her marry this good-looking pagan. But St. Cecilia had already promised God she would stay a virgin forever, and so she refused to Do It with her husband and actually managed to convert him. So they ssentenced her to be suffocated in her bathroom. But she just kept on miraculously breathing. Then a soldier went and tried to chop her head off three times and she would not die! She lay there half-dead for three solid days!

"St. Cecilia is one of the things my friend, Marie Williams, and I have in common. We are fascinated by her. Marie and I open the saints' book to St. Cecilia's picture and just stare at it for hours. We try to figure out whether St. Cecilia's head was actually attached to her body while she was lying in that bathroom half dead, or whether it had sort of rolled off to the side."

Siddalee is one of a stable of characters running around inside the fun-house head of Wells, a Seattle actor, playwright and novelist. Halloween is Wells' favorite holiday, a fitting choice for a woman haunted by spooks both beneficial and malign.

Here's a sampler of the Wellsian stable of half-cocked Southerners in search of their destiny:

-- Loretta Endless, the heroine of Wells' play "Splitting Hairs." Or, more precisely, three Lorettas: Little Loretta, standing knock-kneed and pig-tailed. Young Loretta, vamping in lace stockings and satin for her idol of desire, a hair-salon stylist who happens to be gay. Grownup Loretta, a dispenser of received wisdom and styling tips, whose hair salon becomes the center of anti-nuclear sentiment in South Louisiana.

-- Gloria Duplex, the stripper with the trash mouth, the dynel wig and the harlequin makeup job who sees God in the mirror ball of the Kitten Paradise Lounge. Of Gloria, one reviewer marveled that she "combines the muzzy naivete of Marilyn Monroe in `Bus Stop' with the aggressive spirituality of `Elmer Gantry.' "

-- The eight separate characters in "Little Altars," who each speak in a different voice about growing up in a wild, abusive Louisiana family. Miss Vivi, the Tallulah Bankhead wannabe whose glamorous shell encases a bad case of the Mommie Dearests. Siddalee, her daughter. Edythe Spevey, the class nerd who haunts Siddalee.

At times there even seem to be several Rebeccas. The gracious Southerner in the flowered dress who offers tea and cookies on the veranda. The perfectionist artiste with a passion for directing her own work. The community activist who made the local front page when she challenged a bunch of bureaucrats trying to build a bridge that would inundate her adopted home soil, Bainbridge Island, with mainlanders. As Wells peered over her oversized reading glasses with her brows arched in surprise, the photographer captured her in a look that seemed to ask in a slow Confederate drawl: Just where are y'all FROM, anyway?

Wells is an odd duck to have landed on the Seattle pond - passionate where the region is low-key, Southern to the bone in a region about as far from Louisiana, in climate, social structure and mores, as you can get and remain within what your geography teacher used to call the contiguous United States. But the self-imposed exile seems to have worked for Wells, although she once told a Seattle Weekly writer: "There's that part of you where sometimes you'll be out hiking, you'll be out by yourself in the mountains and all of a sudden you'll just go, `Ah! what on earth am I doing here! What am I doing here?' "

Spasms of homesickness aside, Wells has put together a successful career here writing and acting in one-woman shows, shows that have traveled out of the Northwest cocoon to venues in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. She's taught seminars on writing and creativity in Seattle and up and down the Southeast Alaskan coast. And her first effort out of the block as a novelist won the Western States Book Award for 1992 for "Little Altars," a prize for most promising new novel to come from a Western writer. "Wells presents an astonishing family of voices, potent in its pain, dazzlingly brilliant in its stretches and perceptions," William Kittredge, chair of the jury, wrote of "Little Altars."

Wells, who can look as sad as an orphan and as happy as a 5-year-old with a birthday cake in the same half-minute, says her goal as a writer is the resolution of opposites. "I love laughing and crying at the same time," she says. "It's the best emotion possible short of an orgasm. I've experienced what laughter does to the spirit."

BOTH WELLS' HUMOR, AND an acute sense of life's contradictions, got started as a young girl trying to cope with the black-white dichotomies of 1950s Louisiana.

Rebecca Wells, like most of her characters, was born and raised in Louisiana. She was the daughter of a farming family and she lived in a fairly self-contained world: a modern brick farmhouse in the center of a big track of farmland. She had four brothers and sisters; her father was a farmer. Her mother got her interested in the theater. She emphasizes that the tragic events of "Little Altars," which include parental alcoholism and sexual abuse, are not "factually true." But she says they are "emotionally true."

In a 1991 essay on why Halloween is her favorite holiday, she wrote that "By the time I was 10, Thanksgiving and Christmas wore me out. Everyone tried too hard for their Norman Rockwell awards, and repeatedly failed. My mother would wake up at 4 a.m. to put the turkey in the oven, but by the end of the day one of my five uncles would have provoked a fist fight over a game of after-dinner pool in the den.

"But nobody ever tried to get goody-goody for Halloween. It was when you got to be bad."

A black family served as caretakers to the family place, and they became models for the black husband and wife who rescue Siddalee and her siblings from their vicious, drunken mother in "Little Altars."

"I loved the black people who took care of me," Wells recalls. "At the same time I watched them being treated with no respect. That experience left a mark on me and on all of us who witnessed that situation."

Wells says that the stratified Southern society she grew up in left an indelible impression in other ways. Foremost was the cult of "popularity," in which young girls and teenagers would fold themselves double, emotionally and intellectually, to fit inside the anointed circle of the popular.

Readers of "Little Altars" will wince at the portrait of Edythe Spevey, the misfit who became the antithesis of popular, the brunt of everyone else's scorn. Wells, who went to high school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, recalls that "the hierarchy of high school was so ugly, especially for a woman growing up. In the South, you were initiated into the cult of popularity at a very young age. At the altar of popularity, it was not unheard of to sacrifice any part of yourself - your intelligence, your hair.

"I think I was popular for some time," she remembers. "Then I just got too tired." With the encouragement of her mother, she got involved in theater, which provided her with an alternate identity.

She broke away from her hometown and went first to Louisiana State University, where Wells notes that the football players ate steaks every night while the piano students went wanting for a practice room. A bigger break was called for. Wells made it by enrolling in the Naropa Institute, a center for the study of Eastern thought made famous in part by its affiliation with the Beat Poets. From there Wells moved up and down the East Coast working in the theater, until she heard about Seattle from Jane Adams, a Seattle writer based part time in New York.

"I was making the move from acting to acting and writing," she says. "I sensed I could do that a lot more peacefully in Seattle than New York. I just don't like noise."

Noise, however, is what Wells proceeded to make, a lot of it for such a little person. A multitude of voices, one might say.

Wells is best-known to Seattle audiences for her portrayal of Loretta Endless and Gloria Duplex. She both created them and performed them, and a wealth of other characters besides.

In one scene of "Splittin' Hairs," in which Wells played all the characters, she re-created the dialects, body language and physical presences of Loretta, a shy 12-year-old girl; Bubba, the redneck sheriff; Erlene, a steel-spined Southern woman; and L.T., a shy black kid who wants to skate so bad he'll risk a beating to do it:

"And it isn't a New York minute before Bubba Roland's sheriff car comes spinning into the parking lot with the lights flashing and everything right in thee middle of the afternoon," Loretta remembers. "Bubba busts right through the skating-rink entrance and heads dead-set for L.T. on the rink. Erlene goes charging out like a mean junkyard mama dog. But before she can reach them, Bubba's grabbing L.T., knocking him down and L.T.'s already busted-up knee hits the floor again and there's a new pool of L.T.'s blood.

"And Bubba's kicking him in the side with his boot saying, `Boy, what in the hell you think you doing on a white rink?' . . . L.T.'s crying now and Erlene she says, `Bubba Roland, I rented the boy the skates. You got a bone to pick, you pick it with me . . .' Bubba is so mad his veins are popping and he says, "Erlene, I always knowed you was an odd kind of woman if I can call you a woman but I never knowed you was a nigger-lover.' But old Erlene she's cool, she just smiles at him and says, `Get off of my property, please sir.' "

If Erlene sounds like a sort of mother goddess, safeguarding her broken angels, it is a theme that echoes in Wells' work - maternal, nurturing presences who help redeem those undone by the world's pain. In "Little Altars," however, Wells confronts the maternal turned malign.

Miss Vivi is an object of awe to Siddalee, and arbiter of the central Lousiana cult of popularity. On a Girl Scout outing, she sets poor Edythe straight, after Edythe tries to appeal to Vivi to get her tormentors under control:

"Edythe is looking up at my mother. She says, Mrs. Walker, the nine o'clock curfew is a national Girl Scout rule. It is almost twelve o'clock midnight now. Y'all should make them go to sleep, and turn out your light, too.

"The blue thermos with Mama's vodka and grapefruit juice sits on the bedspread between her and Necie. I can smell that nail polish in the clean cool air of the woods. The minute Mama opens her mouth I realize she's had at least four drinks. Her voice is loose and deep and content and amused, and she says: Edythe, don't you ever tell me what to do again as long as you live . . . Honestly, Edythe, Mama says, like she's going to give her the most important advice in the world, If you continue acting this way, you will be unpopular for the rest of your life."

Wells says that as dark as Vivi is, writing her down helped her understand her. "Vivi is Edythe," she says. "sitting in the den, staring out at the bayou. Edythe Spevey is in all of us. We like to project onto the Edythe Speveys of this world."

It is Wells' ability to wrest universal themes from these very idiosyncratic, particular characters that draws her admirers. "I was very interested in her writing," says Burke Walker, former artistic director of the Empty Space Theater, who helped Wells stage "Gloria Duplex." Now a lecturer in the drama department at the University of Washington, Walker recalls that "part of it was the sheer joy with which she was able to evoke a very rich and personal milieu and environment and to fold into that some very pertinent concerns about contemporary life."

She possesses a recall of details that can make a scene shine with the remembrance of things long past. She says that physical details, "when apprehended, give us information about the mystery of being alive. That is the thing that reassures us that we are not orphans. That we have a place." A therapist attending one of Wells' readings said she had her clients read Rebecca's words to re-create the feelings of childhood.

That particularity of vision was sometimes a challenge for those who helped Wells translate it to the theater. Phil Jordan, who worked with Wells on the sound for a benefit performance of "Splitting Hairs," recalls that "she's very strong-minded and single-minded. The show was really good . . . but I would say, I can't do that. It wasn't possible or I didn't know how. It wasn't like she was a real bitch, but it was like, well, OK, this is what I want and need and this is what the show has to have to go on."

"I had to sit down and remind Rebecca that whatever our contributions were, she was the only one who had the entire event on her own head," Walker recalls. "I needed to get the creator to relax enough so that she, the performer, could do what she had to do. She just needed to let go of some of the elements of the production.

"It's a very difficult life choice," Walker says. "Her experience has taught her in too many instances that if she doesn't look out for her own interests, no one else will."

But Wells says she misses the theater. Her next work may be another novel, or it may be some of her "Little Altars" characters adapted to the stage. Meanwhile, she teaches her writing students that performing will make them better writers - telling a story the old-fashioned way helps the writer connect with their audience.

Brenda Peterson, a fellow author and friend of Wells, says Wells' strength is her ability to keep readers laughing, even as they absorb Wells' characters' pain. "So much of what Rebecca's work is about is humor," Peterson says. "The archetype of children's cruelty against these incredibly funny images of Edythe in her hairnet.

"She carries her characters wherever they lead her," Peterson says, including some dark places. But as a reader, "the humor helps me go into these really dark places."

"When I read Rebecca's work," Peterson says, "I know that my heart will be broken - and mended."

Mary Ann Gwinn is a reporter for the Scene section of The Seattle Times. Mike Siegel is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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