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Review: 'Spit Like a Big Girl' at Rubicon Theatre in Ventura

May 20, 2009 |  4:00 am

SPIT LIKE A BIG GIRL - 1 The line between one-woman show and "Oprah"-style confessional grows increasingly vague in Clarinda Ross' "Spit Like a Big Girl," a scenic drive through one actress' hardscrabble life that is now playing at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura.

Big-voiced and Southern to the core, Ross guides us through the major stages of her life, starting with her Georgia upbringing and continuing through her time as a single mom raising a disabled child. The actress never succumbs to self-pity, but she does allow too much sentimentality to creep into the floorboards of her old-fashioned storytelling.

The first half of the show is dedicated to Ross' father, a small-town professor whose oracular wisdom leaves an indelible mark on his daughter. As a teenager, she encounters the usual obstacle course of adolescent awkwardness, including messy fumblings with boyfriends and parental smothering. No major traumas to report here -- just your typical growing pains recounted with Southern pluck.

In the play's second half, the story refocuses on her disabled daughter, Clara, whom she must raise alone following a divorce. The stories of bureaucratic red tape and unpleasant hospital visits are truly captivating -- in fact, these passages alone could comprise their own play. Ross also tells about her acting career, which takes her to New York and eventually Los Angeles.

Through it all, Ross projects a chipper, star-spangled optimism. Even in the play's darkest moments, her tone is never less than upbeat. At times, you wish she would dig deeper into her own Type A neurosis -- she is obviously an aggressive woman who is used to getting her way. But Ross soft-pedals or avoids these themes altogether, as if affixing smiley-face stickers to any potential unpleasantness.

"Spit Like a Big Girl" works best when its star is channeling other characters, especially her baritone dad and her daughter's Chinese caretaker. Ross is an excellent mimic, and she brings a lot of empathy to her impressions. It's a shame that she doesn't spend more time inhabiting the skin of others. Ironically, it's at these moments that the actress seems the most comfortable with herself.

Directed by Jenny Sullivan, the show staves off monotony through video projections and subtle changes in the lighting that signal shifts in the narrative. The show meanders from one biographical incident to another in a mostly linear fashion. Never boring, the play keeps us on our toes by moving from one scene to the next in a hurried fashion, as if the actress were trying to cover as much ground as possible in the time allotted.

In the end, "Spit Like a Big Girl" is a moving experience, but not an illuminating one. Ross' candor is of a superficial variety -- it’s meant primarily to make you like her. A more courageous story would risk exposing the star in a harsher, less flattering light. Everyone has an unattractive side and Ross' decision to keep hers tastefully hidden only ends up pushing her audience away.

-- David Ng

"Spit Like a Girl," Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m., Wednesdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. $39-$59. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Clarinda Ross in "Spit Like a Big Girl." Credit: Rod Lathim