Can you smell it in the air, that briny tinge on the cold winds of the New Year? It’s the aroma of madcap life below the Salt Line that lets us know a Mobile satirist is on the loose again.
The playwright in discussion is native son Tom Perez – pronounced “Pee-rez” by some Old Mobile denizens – and his latest skewering is “When the Saints Come Marching in at Cockroach Hall.” His South of the Salt Line theater will stage the whimsical romp through our perks and peccadilloes for the last half of January, a year past their triumphant return to the Mobile scene.
The new play runs weekends, Jan. 17 – Feb. 1 at the Mobile Theatre Guild facility, 14 N. Lafayette St. Evening curtain rises at 8 p.m and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.
Entrance is $20, $15 for students and senior citizens. A benefit performance on Jan 16 raises funds for the South Alabama Volunteers Lawyers program and another on Jan. 23 does the same for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Perez made a name for himself with a string of these lampoons during the 1980s. When he departed the Azalea City for world travels, he left behind an urban legend that grew in his 20-year absence. His return home precipitated the revival of the storied company.
In 2013, Perez premiered “Don’t Frack with Society Shell,” a whimsical farce centered around the noted service station at the corner of Ann and Government streets, a sequel of sorts to his earlier play “Society Shell.” The reception to the tale replete with bookmaking nuns, towering drag queens and dominatrix socialites was so overwhelming, it was extended with another run in March.
This latest work contains Salt Line’s trademark zaniness and over-the-top characters. Originally entitled merely “Cockroach Hall” when it premiered decades ago, a recent updating of the script resulted in nearly a brand new story with only some elements of the original.
“There was a cousin who was going to be the first queen of the Osiris ball – I called it the Ganymede ball – but I killed off about five characters so it flows a lot faster,” Perez said. “We’ve updated, moved one of the ladies from Spring Hill to the Eastern Shore. Her attorney husband is representing claims against Carnival Cruises. It’s really fresh.”
The aforementioned socialite is fuming that her daughter has fallen for a young carwash magnate from Elba, Ala., a man the mother considers below their station. When her husband’s alcoholic stupor results in his being locked in a float barn following the Infant Mystics parade and her standing backstage at the ball sans escort, she hits the roof.
“When we first did the play in ’86 and said he got drunk in the IM parade, the next week I had seven people call me and say, ‘No, no, no, it wasn’t the IM ball, it was the Stripers and it was my cousin,’” Perez laughed.
The central setting of this new play is the veranda of Cockroach Hall, a manor based on Mobile landmark Termite Hall. Attendance at Eugene Walter’s famed salons inside the Dauphin Street site inspired Perez to begin his Salt Line ventures.
“The basic thing is still the two sisters at Cockroach Hall,” Perez explained. “Their home has previous damage they’re trying to pass off as Christmas tornado damage, but being four doors away from the Trinity Episcopal, they can’t claim it so they’re trying to scam the insurance company.”
A federal bureaucrat emerges eager to turn the mansion into a National Historic Site but the sisters don’t want to be bothered with tourists. The ladies take a turn toward skullduggery to eliminate their problem.
Other contemporary elements appear. Some only resonate locally while others are pulled from statewide news.
“You find out one of the central characters is who called the University of Alabama last September and said ,‘Oh no, you cannot pledge that black girl,’” Perez said. “ And Uncle Henry asked me last year to write a play where I would trash Troy King so his spirit is present here.”
Perez said the two-hour tale contains about 20 characters, including a few with the customary risqué traits, including the Queen of the Comic Cowboys who wins the heart of the federal bureaucrat. The rewrite took six months of work and Perez quickly credited Kinnon Phillips with assistance in the project.
In a turn from last year’s production, Perez will direct this one himself. Previous director Daniel Mainwaring is in the cast this time around.
Those with delicate sensibilities be warned: the play is bound to harpoon something you love. Perez has seen occasional audience members walk out in a huff.
“As a satirist, I consider that a compliment,” he noted. “But I know people are drawn to it because of the things we love. As my friend Johnny Gwin said, ‘The reason people like these plays is they’re about us.’”