Voices of the South, one of the few local theater companies regularly producing original work, owes much to the voices in Jerre Dye’s head.
A man of numerous talents, Dye (who is now spending half of his time getting a foothold in Chicago theater) is a beloved contributor to Memphis stages as both an actor and a writer. Consider his recent star turn as Prior Walter in Playhouse on the Square’s “Angels in America.” Dye took audiences on an emotional roller coaster ride as a man suffering from AIDS while being visited by angels.
The same swirl of emotions and empathies that allowed him simultaneously to laugh, cry, live and nearly die in Tony Kushner’s epic work also serves him well as a playwright.
Dye wears a distinctly Southern mantle: his stories and characters are drawn from our collective coatroom, though they have a universal appeal.
His latest work, “Threads,” is a series of scenes and monologs performed by Voices of the South company members at TheatreSouth through Sunday. It is not a wholly formed thought, but the makings of one.
At the end of the hourlong performance, the audience votes on which characters work the best together. Using democratic parameters, Dye will then “thread” the winning characters together into a full-length play next season.
What is spooling off the spinning wheel in Dye’s attic these days?
There’s an elderly woman, suffering from dementia, who can no longer recognize her daughter’s face.
There is the church pastor alerting a father that his boy might have homosexual inclinations. The father (one of Todd Berry’s strongest performances) sacrifices his faith in the defense of his child.
Talking to herself in a mirror, a suburban “trophy wife” in Cordova concludes that the plastic existence she has been living — “a memory with teeth that eats and eats at itself until there’s nothing left but a ... black hole” — is about to go ballistic, literally. Jenny Odle Madden’s impeccable timing and wit command our rapt attention.
Like Robert Harling (of “Steel Magnolias”) and Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”), Dye has a particular affection for strong female characters, sharp as tacks and quick with comebacks.
Cecelia Wingate plays a lonely woman on the verge of major personal changes who decides to kick her 28-year-old son out of the house — for his benefit, and hers.
Even Dye’s most lovably comic characters share powerful insights. Steve Swift is a “Licensed Beauty Operator” named Leonard who likes “to know a lot about a little.” While preparing a wig for a funeral, he contemplates the afterlife in a way that may cause you to think differently about the city of Memphis itself.
Thanks to Voices of the South, Dye has a friendly place to workshop his characters and ideas. And thanks to Dye, Voices of the South gets some of its best original work.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Added performance is 7 p.m. Sunday. At TheatreSouth, 1000 S. Cooper. Tickets are $15 adults, $10 students and seniors. Call 901-726-0800.