Corrections or additions?
This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the March 6, 2002
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `Foxfire’ Off-Broadstreet
Foxfire, an eerie phosphorescent light given off by
decaying wood, is also a lichen living on dead, fallen trees. It glows
in the dark in forests of Southern Appalachia. It is also the name
of a magazine, later of the Foxfire series of books, in which, 35
years ago, high school students of Rabun County, Georgia, in Southern
Appalachia — Blue Ridge Mountain country — recorded and
the beliefs, personalities, and traditions of their grandparents’
generation, and the Appalachians’ nearly vanished tough, joyous,
homespun way of life.
"Foxfire" is the title given to a play by Susan Cooper and
Hume Cronyn now playing at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Dessert Theater
through March 16. Inspired by the "Foxfire" books, Cooper
and Cronyn created the story of Annie, Hector, and Dillard Nations
in a drama that incorporates much of the region’s true history. In
its theme of the dying of a society and a way of life, the play has
echoes of Chekhov’s "The Cherry Orchard," but none of its
Premiered on Broadway in 1982, the original cast starred Cronyn’s
wife, the esteemed actress Jessica Tandy, as Annie, with Cronyn
taking the role of Hector Nations. Tandy won a Tony for her
and the couple repeated their "Foxfire" roles for a TV movie
in 1987. After Tandy died in 1994, Susan Cooper, who had done some
writing for the husband-wife team, became Cronyn’s writing partner.
She is now his wife.
At Off-Broadstreet, the role of the elderly, resolute, somewhat
Annie Nations is excellently portrayed by the veteran area actor June
Connerton. Her impatient, strong, strict, traditionalist husband,
Hector, played by Ed Mahler, is equally believable to us. (Hector
plants potatoes by the phases of the moon and is angered at his son
earning money by playing guitar.) Harris Goodman, as their son Dillard
(one of three of Annie’s five children who has survived), plays and
sings the region’s bluegrass music on his guitar, setting the play’s
mood, later switching to more nostalgic melodies.
Dillard wants his aged mother to move to Florida with him where he
can keep an eye on her. A bit awkward at the outset, Goodman warms
to the part. Like the other two Nations children, he has left the
family farm to earn a living; he’s back home on a visit. Prince
(Curtis Kaine), the eager, money-proffering developer, a ready-made
buyer who wants the land so badly he will puncture a stinking hog’s
head’s splurting eye and pretend to talk to a dead man, is funny.
Together with Dillard, he provides opposition to those urging Annie
to stay on the land, not to sell.
The conflict is established, yet the script, especially in Act II,
veers off into nostalgia and reminiscence, becoming discursive.
is lost; tension almost evaporates. (It’s pretty clear where the
have spliced in non-fiction reminiscences from the "Foxfire"
books.) Yet while the play temporarily loses focus, the reminiscences
are nonetheless character-revealing, funny, fascinating.
The underlying theme of the play, spoken a few times, is "The
times, they are a changin’." Most of the neighbors’ grown children
have also moved away. The one neighbor’s child who was born in the
place and has stayed, Holly Burrell (Christy McCall), now a school
teacher, strongly cautions Annie against selling the land. Annie
what she and her neighbors had to contend with when they broke a leg
and needed a doctor — "he wound and wound it; you’re laid
up 12 months"). Hector tells of the dentist who, without
pulled teeth. Sometimes "the pullers slipped."
Set on a small front yard on a farm in Appalachia between a small
cheerless cabin, a well, and an in-ground cellar, the play is unique,
having a childbirth scene (where a forceful Robert Thick plays the
doctor) and a dead-man-laid-out scene on (center) stage. It opens
with Annie in dialogue with Hector. Once it is revealed that Hector
is dead, the audience isn’t sure until the end if Annie is mad or
Hector is not "real" in the present.
Under Robert Thick’s assured direction, the play moves
fluidly in and out of the present and scattered moments in the past;
time and scene changes marked by lighting change. The play is peppered
with gentle humor. In the childbirth scene, Hector brings out an ax
"to cut the pain." Hector reminisces about a cat dropped on
him when he was digging a well, makes an egg stand on end. (It’s
Hector’s granddaddy and daddy cleared this land; Annie plans to stay
and eventually lie beside the family in the cemetery in the orchard,
but can she continue to stay on the place?
"The kids are leaving. The old ones are hanging on like foxfire
in rotten wood," she says. Holly urges her not to sell, Hector
talks of "My dirt, my land," while Dillard wants her to move,
and the aptly-named developer, Carpenter, urges her to sell.
Annie’s final decision, made in the midst of the pull of the land
("There aren’t a tree or a rock around here I don’t know better
‘n my own hand"), is a reversal, understated, accomplished
seemingly without inner turmoil.
In a coda to this play of "changin’ times," we watch the
tack up a "Sold" sign on Annie’s place. Returning alone,
reads it aloud, "No Trespassing." "In my day," he
tells us, "there wasn’t a trespasser we didn’t say howdy to and
offer a little something."
— Joan Crespi
South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Performances Fridays
through Sundays, to March 16. $22.50 & $24.
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