If the real Norma Wallace possessed the same stomping will and fast-talking, salty vigor that Christine McMurdo-Wallis brings to playing her in The Last Madam, now at Southern Rep, then it's not hard to imagine why she considered herself a captain of industry. But keeping her bordello open gets tough when a bunch of crooked cops and politicians all seem to have a greater political stake in her business.
McMurdo-Wallis' Wallace owns the stage, which is set as her courtyard at 1026 Conti St., where she ran an infamous bordello for more than 30 years. She's at home ordering everyone around, from scolding bought-off cops like disobedient lap dogs to riding her maid and employees as if she were an overly fussy royal.
When she entertains, it's all about the money and that's the personal side of her drama. Running a prostitution enterprise made Wallace a wealthy woman and serving the clientele she did gave her access to City Hall, or at least the ears and other select intimacies of its judges, prominent lawyers and top cops. But that familiarity isn't easily translated into social-page glamour and Wallace resents the lack of respect she thinks she's more than earned. Some of her funnier moments on-stage are riffs on how the city ought to be thanking her for making the French Quarter what it is. Without her, the city would be "Memphis with good food and mosquitoes." Instead, she's being raided by the police, and it's not just the threat of jail being wagged in her face but the insult of being treated like a common criminal that she resents. If nothing else, she passes out plenty of thick envelopes in order to be treated like a rather uncommon one.
Politics and prostitutes have always made not-so-strange bedfellows and that's very much the point of Jim Fitzmorris and Carl Walker's adaptation of New Orleans mystery writer Christine Wiltz's biography of Wallace, The Last Madame: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. If Wiltz's book captured more of Wallace's vision of her place in New Orleans society, their script loves to let Wallace get down and dirty. She's just as shrewd a political player as the chief of police or District Attorney Jim Garrison, neither of whom is seen on stage but who are nonetheless waging a turf war in her backyard. Garrison seems to want to earn a reputation, but Wallace isn't going to let him do it off her back. But the truth is that everyone here plays dirty and that's why Wallace is at no disadvantage.
Whether it's with the cops trying to bust her or the judge who wants to laugh about old times, the dialogue throughout is racy. No one onstage is terribly shy about addressing a full menu of sexual proclivities, including some scatological fun that may or may not have happened in a hotel on Airline Highway.
Perhaps one bondage joke is anachronistic, but this is a play about power. When it's all said and done, Wallace wants to be on top, no matter how high or low that is. The game is getting tougher because the rules are changing. She's not just struggling with City Hall, she's also confronting changing times. And part of that is about getting older. In a lovely inversion of rich men seeking trophy wives or much younger girlfriends, Wallace likes to blow money on her much younger boyfriend Wayne (which is not a fiction devised for the play). On-stage, she even works up a little appetite for a young carpenter (Michael Aaron Santos), who seems as intimidated by a strong woman as he is shocked by her advance.
Wallace may just be losing her grip on her world. Throughout, her maid and confidant Marie, played superbly by Carol Sutton, is an unflappable reality check, often sweeping subtle barbs Wallace's way. But it's Jesse Terrebonne's character as deputy Madam who seeks to expose Wallace's vanity. Though at times her anger comes off a bit campy and she lacks the machine-gun execution of McMurdo-Wallis' diatribes, Terrebonne offers one of the play's more revealing moments about the hard knocks of their profession. She learns that it's not really a family business, though she feels like Wallace's red headed step child. In this world, it's far easier to buy loyalty than earn it.
Before any domestic issues can be resolved, they have to preserve the house. For once, Wallace doesn't seem to know who her friends are. Or as she laments, relationships suffer when you run a business, and, more so for women. It's almost easier to trust one's enemies, especially if they're dropping by, with or increasingly without an invitation, for a party. In this case, her gentlemen callers are aptly played by J. Patrick McNamara as the Judge and Sean Patterson as Pershing, a cop Wallace had been keeping on a short leash. But unleashed, Patterson livens up the party and it's anything but business as usual.
Wallace can't imagine vacating the French Quarter and leaving it to Dixie buses hauling tourists by her address. But as those tourists are often told these days, "In Louisiana, we don't expect corruption from our politicians. We demand it." It's in that spirit that The Last Madam delivers a host of guilty pleasures. To be finally cast as the heroine would have to have made the real Norma Wallace proud.