‘Killer Chili’ Revisited

‘Killer Chili’ Revisited

Production in 1990 recalled; new version staged


Photo courtesy Danielle Keller
Director Jacob Mann Christiansen, who has worked with Tim Gilster, left, and Terry Vaughan, right, before, admits there are challenges in directing a couple, “but they are a fabulous couple to direct. One of the great benefits is that the intimacy is already established.”

Jackie had “a face like a road map — lines goin’ every which way. And red dabs of makeup, here and here, on both cheeks. Mascara you could cut with a knife. Eyebrows like two McDonald’s arches. And she had … I’ll never forget ‘em … she had green fingernails. Like nothing I’d ever seen before.”

Mike Thomas was 29 when he played the truck driver, Jason, in a February 1990 Ozark StageWorks production of “Valentines and Killer Chili.”

“I was really too young,” says Thomas, who now teaches theater at Fayetteville High School, writes, acts and does comedy improv. “I needed more life experience.”

Thomas isn’t appearing in the Smokehouse Players show that runs Feb. 8-9 — the first local production since 1990 — but it has prompted him to share memories of the experience 29 years ago with Fred Scarborough, who directed for Ozark StageWorks, and playwright Kent R. Brown, chairman of the University of Arkansas drama department from 1985 to 1993, who now lives in Greenville, S.C.

The idea for “Valentines and Killer Chili” was born in Texas, while Brown was attending a theater conference there in the early 1980s, he recalls. He went into a restaurant carrying a yellow legal pad, and “a waitress approached, took my order and came back a few moments later with my coffee. We chatted a bit. And that was it.”

“She looked or talked nothing like Jackie,” Brown remembers. “But she did pile her hair up high on her head. Bouffant-looking. As I waited for my food to arrive, I just began writing about a trucker who met a waitress on the road years before, all from Jason’s point of view. … It was only when I gave Jackie the freedom to create her own life, and have her own story, that the play came to life.”

“At the time, I was a graduate student at the university,” remembers Scarborough, who is now president of the Arkansas Children’s Foundation. “I just wanted to tell stories. I was constantly in a show, planning a show, working on a show, looking for a show. I craved that collaboration.”

Scarborough cast Thomas alongside Leslie Irene Wells, also a UA alum.

“Leslie connected with Jackie. Leslie’s Jackie joked and flirted like she was the greatest thing since sliced bread, all the while very hurt from love lost. Mike was so believable as the good old boy trucker. His Jason wanted to connect, but … the road, the drive, the solitude were where he was most comfortable.”

“She loved theater and had a lot of natural talent,” Thomas says of Wells, who died in December 2013. “She was vulnerable and strong, just like Jackie.”

The play was staged at Jerry’s Diner, a Fayetteville institution at the corner of Dickson Street and College Avenue.

“I wanted to do the play in a found space,” says Scarborough, and “just asked if they’d consider letting us do it. They gave us a key and asked that we lock up at night. It was that easy.”

“Jerry’s Diner gave us the atmosphere of a ‘real’ truckstop,” Thomas remembers. “The wagon wheel light fixtures, the old wooden booths, the smells… Ozark StageWorks became known as the theater company that did plays in interesting places…”

Smokehouse Players, in existence just a year, has also found a unique place to create theater — the Chillin’ Room at Frank Sharp’s Ozark Mountain Smokehouse west of Fayetteville.

Husband and wife team Tim Gilster and Terry Vaughan had been in love with Brown’s script since long before they founded an entity called the Smokehouse Players. Their friendship with Brown dates back to the 1980s, before they moved to New York to pursue professional theater. They even saw what might have been the first production of the one-act play with Brown at a theater in Pennsylvania. And when they moved back to Fayetteville recently, arts supporter Frank Sharp approached them with the idea of producing the script.

“We were hesitant because it’s a one-act,” Vaughan says, “but Frank had the idea of serving a chili dinner and having music, so it’s turned into a full evening of entertainment.”

The Chillin’ Room is a unique space one enters through a heavy steel cooler door, but inside it’s warm and cozy, with room for about 60 patrons at booths and in chairs. The intimacy allows Vaughan’s Jackie to make the audience part of the cast as she serves them coffee and chats them up before turning her attention to Jason — portrayed by Gilster — and his shiny red box of Valentine’s Day chocolates.

“The guy who’d sold ‘em to me said they were the best and … I was hopin’ he weren’t lyin’,” Jason says. “I was gonna leave ‘em for her at the counter. Had a note all ready. ‘From the Biggest Super Chicken on the Road… Lots of Love.’ I thought she’d like that. Make her laugh. It wasn’t a big deal… just some silly candy. Why not? There was no one else to give ‘em to.”

The result of his overture is not what either one of them imagined.

“I think the overall theme is loneliness and isolation,” Gilster muses. “Isolation and loneliness block our ability to make truly meaningful connections.”

“They’re looking for things in each other they may or may not find,” adds Vaughan. “It’s sweet and funny and poignant.”



‘Valentines and Killer Chili”

WHEN — Feb. 8-9: Doors at 6 p.m., dinner at 6:30 p.m., music by Rob Button at 7:30 p.m., show at 8 p.m.

WHERE — Chillin’ Room at Ozark Mountain Smokehouse, corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Rupple Road in Fayetteville

COST — $20 donation; wine & beer will be sold; all proceeds to Magdalene Serenity House

INFO — smokehouseplayers@gmail.com or 935-4219

RESERVATIONS — Required in advance at the Smokehouse Players or Magdalene Serenity House pages on Facebook.

Categories: Cover Story