As a child, native New Orleanian Jennifer Pagan “threw up Jesus” on her first pair of “church shoes” at her communion. This experience left her confused about religion, but almost as important, ruined her white Mary Janes. That memory is part of Pagan’s alternately heartbreaking and humorous one-woman show Shoebox Lounge, presented at The Shadowbox Theatre.
Pagan is a riveting performer and the show blends memoir pieces and excellent character work. She animates nine figures, including her shoe-loving grandmother and racetrack-aficionado grandfather. Like fragmented pieces of Pagan’s history, the characters came together in a satisfying way to formed a nearly complete whole. Her New Orleans shoe repairman vignette was particularly good. For someone who loves shoes so much — there’s a great moment when she recites a litany of brands — her repairman naturally became a therapist of sorts. The sign over his shop says, “I Will Heel You. I Will Save Your Sole. I will Even Dye for You,” and it laid out the theme of one of the show’s most emotional threads.
The original version of Shoebox Lounge debuted in 2007 at Le Chat Noir, and Pagan refined the narrative for subsequent productions. Her dedication paid off; the show’s structure was tight, with no lag between scenes, and transitions from one character to the next — sometimes three in the span of a minute — were seamless. The show lasts one hour, but storylines were thoughtful and mostly realized, although one portion about a failing marriage seemed unfinished. Most characters were fully developed.
Pagan balanced the show’s emotional content and humor. There are many funny moments, including a scene in which one of her main characters judges potential suitors based on the quality of his shoes.
Pagan’s acting completely filled the space, but the heart of this story resides in quieter moments. The title refers to her grandmother’s stash of hidden liquor, and material about a family struggling with addiction is poignant.
The show also delves into common experiences in New Orleans. In one scene, she visits her grandmother’s Lakeview house, which was flooded following Hurricane Katrina and thick mold covers most of its contents. Pagan exhibits great intuition and control in the intense scene.
Shoebox is a special show that explores life’s complexities, and Pagan’s performance is like one of the shoes she most admires: smooth, intricate and able to go the extra mile.
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
The Shadowbox Theatre, 2400 St. Claude Ave.