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Tradin' Paint puts female empowerment in driver's seat 

Theatre in the Square’s comedy Tradin’ Paint, like the theatrical chestnut Educating Rita, depicts a working-class woman who finds empowerment and confidence through learning. While Rita takes place in a university professor’s office in Liverpool, Paint’s action primarily occurs amid the stock car races of Tennessee's Bristol Motor Speedway.

Written by Catherine Bush, Paint sets a contrast between two women: one who’s in a pit crew, and one who’s just in the pits. Lucky Tibbs (Kate Donadio) runs her racing husband Skeeter Jett's (Chad Martin) pit crew and serves as a completely capable, small-town feminist icon. Meanwhile, Darla Frye (Veronika Duerr) works as an auto parts clerk and suffers from the neglect of her bitter boyfriend, Coty (Eric Mendenhall). Coty shows less appreciation for Darla than for her fried chicken, the bones of which he throws at the track in a speedway tradition. He’s an ignorant boor, who can’t stand KFC, calling Colonel Sanders a “faggot” for wearing a string tie.

When a flat tire strands Darla on a lonesome road, Lucky comes to the rescue and teaches her to fix it, setting Darla on the road to self-esteem. Tradin’ Paint finds humor in the jargon of pop therapy, like the way Darla drawls the refrain, “I’m fraught with deep-seated insecurities.” The play doesn’t so much satirize self-improvement clichés as affirm them in fairly straightforward fashion. The title, for instance, refers to drivers who aggressively jostle each other’s cars, but becomes a metaphor for engaging with life. Fortunately, Duerr proves utterly charming at playing Darla’s early depression as well as her metamorphosis, changing her posture, body language and eagerness of delivery as the show goes along.

Tradin’ Paint’s lineup also includes a gay African-American continuing ed  professor (Neal Ghant) who’s an unlikely stock car fan, as well as a racing flagman (Bart Hansard, in multiple roles). The flagman helpfully explains some of NASCAR's niceties, including the difference between stock and indy cars. The cheerful cast brings out the comedy in the trailer-park roles without condescending to them, while director Jessica Phelps West and the designers clearly enjoy riffing on NASCAR themes. Granted, some of the running jokes start losing their tread by the second act, and Bush’s script seems a bit too amused with its comparisons between God and Dale Earnhardt. Fortunately, Theatre in the Square’s production has Duerr as its co-pilot.

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