The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia

Different Stages captures the small-town feel in Preston Jones' Texas drama, but the play's age is showing

Band of brothers: (l-r) Travis Dean, Donald Owen, and Tim Mateer
Band of brothers: (l-r) Travis Dean, Donald Owen, and Tim Mateer (Courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 512/524-2870 Through April 27
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

Before a single member sets foot in this meeting room of the Cattleman's Hotel, we can see that time has not been kind to the Knights of the White Magnolia. The once-lustrous wood has gone drab. The banners depicting the lodge's mythic stations (Moon, Sun, West Wind) have the cheap, craft-store look of something in a Sunday school classroom, as does the light bulb-studded cross hanging by Old Glory and the Lone Star flag. And the half-dozen ratty chairs bespeak both the meager crowd expected there and a status well below the genteel nobility implied by the group's highfalutin name.

Sure enough, the assembled membership is just a grab bag of small-town working stiffs – gas-pump jockey, supermarket manager, farmer, et al. – plus the hotel's owner, a paraplegic vet of the Great War sliding swiftly into senility. Any stature and might this lodge boasted after it split from the Ku Klux Klan – you knew the "white" in its name was about more than spiritual purity, yes? – is long gone by 1962, when The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia is set. The group has dwindled to a refuge from wives and mothers where the menfolk can play dominoes, sip hooch, and childishly bicker with and needle one another – it's a brotherhood in the sense of brothers who slug each other on the arms when their folks aren't looking.

Playwright Preston Jones played up the silly squabbling of these "bumbledicks" – as they're tartly dubbed by the old Colonel – in part to mock the pomposity of the Klan and like hate groups, and show how outdated they were in the face of the civil rights movement. But he was also sending up the provincialism of Texas' backwater burgs, and it's that feel that Different Stages' production captures best. Its nine actors fit together, their short tempers and long memories rising from common ground, the same cramped patch of West Texas dirt. Director Bob Tolaro has drawn from them a shared past, and though the comic bits are sometimes a bit blunt, the dramatic moments are sharp, especially when driven by Skip Johnson's crusty Red, Tim Mateer's ever-thirsty Skip, Travis Dean's desperate L.D., or Donald Owen's alternately blustery and foggy Colonel.

That said, I'm not sure time has been that kind to the play. In the Seventies, its exposé of small-town racism – Mayberry's dark side – seemed fresh and necessary. Forty years on, not so much. Oh, the racism's still there and still needs calling out, but it's slithered under different rocks, and now those need turning over. The Last Meeting still shows Jones' rich skills as a playwright, but its target, like those old lodges, seems to belong to another era.

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The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, Austin theatre, Different Stages, Preston Jones, Bob Tolaro, Travis Dean, Tim Mateer, Skip Johnson, Donald Owen

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