Former child stars are unique among the celestial: when they reunite with their old, dedicated fans, they bless them with the rare but coveted opportunity of reliving childhood. This is no small gift. It seems the further from childhood we get, the more we need to remember it – as though holding on to our past helps us maintain a grip on who we are now.
Alison Arngrim, who, from 1974 to 1982 played resident mean girl Nellie Oleson on the popular television series Little House on the Prairie, is one of those special celestials. On June 15th and 16th, about 160 Nellie-lovin’ New Yorkers descended upon the Laurie Beechman Theatre, a three-decade old, thriving performance venue inside the basement of the West Bank Café in Hell’s Kitchen, eager to bask in nostalgia via Arngrim’s worldwide phenomenon of a one-woman show, called Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, in which she relays sarcasm-soaked stories from the 70s super-series and reconnects giddy audiences of Little House fans with their childhoods.
As sour-spirited, yellow-ringleted Nellie Oleson, Arngrim amused, annoyed, and affronted 1970s television viewers all over the world with her brilliantly bratty faces. Now, all grown up, Arngrim has taken her talent for amusement to the stage with the raucous Confessions, which is a hybrid of stand-up comedy and storytelling. She has composed this new work with much reference to her old work, and, judging by the exceptionally eager and receptive audience filled with pairs of eyes fixed on Arngrim, it works for her.
She opens the performance with an explanation of its title: “Why am I a bitch? Do you have any idea of the shit I’ve had to put up with? Somebody somewhere in the world has called me a bitch to my face since I was eleven years old.” It’s hilarious to think of, yes, but, like most great comedy, there’s also sadness in the fact. As a little girl, Arngrim grew up not only in the alienating limelight of fame but also as the projected enemy of hoards of television viewers.
In Confessions, Arngrim takes this experience and runs with it, sharing with her audience fun and outlandish stories that stem from her unique childhood: she once had an orange soda thrown in her face during a parade; her “gay” father managed her character Nellie Oleson as well as Liberace; Michael Landon, her mentor and the star of Little House, apparently never wore underwear; little Alison ate dinner at her dining room table across from Christine Jorgensen and was thrilled by her infantile understanding that being transgender meant you could change yourself into anything – animals included. These tickling anecdotes are a mere sampling of the humor feast to which Arngrim treats her audience.
Humor momentarily aside, through the lens of pop culture, we see all too often child stars becoming victims of dysfunction as they grow into adults, and we would understand if Arngrim had been one of these, if her show were not an enjoyable round of comedic tales but rather a heart-wrenching, revelatory narrative of the stresses and harsh realities of growing up famous and hated. But Confessions is not this. It is instead a candidly funny window into the way Arngrim sees her world – a world rooted in a childhood spent on set, surrounded by fame and famous people, and during which she heard constantly from strangers how awful she was.
Miraculously, Arngrim survived this particularly tough childhood stardom to become a fully functioning mature performer with an easy way about her onstage. She is calm and relatable, it’s clear she’s comfortable being the center of attention, and she is bluntly honest, all of which endear her even further to an audience who is sympathetic to her from the get-go: they’ve watched her grow up, and, even more importantly, they feel she’s grown up with them. Even prior to entering the theatre, then, Arngrim, simply by being who she is, has already accomplished the most difficult job – winning over her audience. They are ready to love and ready to laugh.
As a member of the audience who did not grow up in the seventies, I have seen only a handful of Little House episodes and cannot claim to be, as true Prairie fans are called, a “Bonnet Head.” I did not laugh with as much gusto throughout Arngrim’s show as ninety percent of the audience, but I did find her charming and comically adept, and, while almost all of her material could be considered funny and engaging, I preferred the stories she told of her own full and fascinating life to the many pop culture references she made to her generation’s formative decade.
One of the best parts, though, of attending Confessions of a Prairie Bitch was observing Arngrim’s appreciative audience. For a couple of hours, she gave them permission to succumb to nostalgia, to reconnect with their past and fill themselves with the food of memory so that, at the end of the show, restored and ready, they could walk out of the theatre and face the present. It made me wonder who will give such a gift to my generation in thirty years. I hope to God it’s not that girl from Twilight. If it is, I’ll call up eighty-year old Alison Arngrim and beg her to remount Confessions.
For information on future performances, go to Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.