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Folksy, Fun and Flimsy

Dueling divas bring the heat In “Honky Tonk Laundry,” but the show only simmers.


It takes a powerhouse performer to adequately portray Patsy Cline and, in Richmond-area theater, two vocalists have been regularly tapped for that task. Debra Wagoner starred in “Always…Patsy Cline” back in 2012 and again in 2019. Shannon Gibson Brown was featured in “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline” in 2016 and has performed her work in solo shows since.

So if Brown and Wagoner got together to perform a cavalcade of country hits you’d expect music sweeter than stolen honey. Virginia Rep’s latest, “Honky Tonk Laundry,” stars the dueling divas and, sure enough, the singing, or should I say “sangin’”, is hotter than a billy goat in a pepper patch.

The show, however, is oversaturated in Southern folksiness, not to mention a plot that just stops cold after the first act. The latest from playwright Roger Bean, creator of “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and its many sequels, “Laundry” serves up an eclectic jumble of classic and contemporary country songs that Wagoner and Brown deliver with panache. But the story needed another cycle in the dryer because it has as much snap as soggy Rice Krispies.

Wagoner plays Lana Mae Hopkins, who runs the Wishy-Washy Washateria, set in an unnamed Southern town. Against her will, she hires the flakey Katie Lane Murphy (Brown) who’s perpetually distracted thanks to the antics of her no-good, cheating boyfriend. That preoccupation makes Katie Lane as useless as a hip pocket on a hog when it comes to work, further frustrating Lana Mae.

The two battle each other for a few scenes but they ultimately bond when Lana Mae ends up in a romantic predicament of her own thanks to her lay-about husband. With a plot so thin it would be invisible if it stood sideways, the second act sees the laundromat transformed into a honky-tonk so the two stars can keep singing without the distraction of a storyline.

They also ultimately pick members of the audience to act as stand-ins for the men in their lives, so patrons in the first row may want to be on guard. In the hands of such sure-handed pros, the crowd work is charming and gets the loudest laughs of the night.

Each performer gets a chance to belt out some crowd pleasers, though the songs are often awkwardly shoehorned into the story. Wagoner gets her first shot in with a sturdy “Stand by Your Man,” but Brown follows quickly behind with the Martina McBride empowerment anthem, “Independence Day.”

Even better than the solos, though, are moments when their voices blend stupendously like the Sara Evans hit, “Born to Fly.”

While the silly similes scattered throughout the script are adorable - I particularly enjoyed “as happy as a dog with three tails” - they are a poor substitute for good dialogue. In contrast to the soaring songs about love and heartbreak, the story has about as much gravitas as a fart in a fan factory.

Technically, the Virginia Rep crew delivers the goods as per usual. Mercedes Schaum’s scenic design, dominated by four seemingly working dryers, effectively evokes a small-town laundromat with dramatic lighting by Steve Koehler kicking in during the songs. The pre-recorded instrumental tracks put together by music director Shellie Johnson are fine, though no substitute for live music.

Still, even a peppy on-stage band could only have gone so far in lathering up more suds for “Laundry.” I feel lower than a gopher hole to have to say it but, even featuring a dynamic duo of divas, this show has a lot of bacon but not much sizzle.

“Honky Tonk Laundry” plays on Virginia Rep’s Hanover Tavern stage, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, until Aug. 27. Tickets available at