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

published

the beliefs, personalities, and traditions of their grandparents’

generation, and the Appalachians’ nearly vanished tough, joyous,

Bible-quoting,

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

angst.

Premiered on Broadway in 1982, the original cast starred Cronyn’s

wife, the esteemed actress Jessica Tandy, as Annie, with Cronyn

himself

taking the role of Hector Nations. Tandy won a Tony for her

performance,

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

unsteady

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

Carpenter

(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.

Suspense

is lost; tension almost evaporates. (It’s pretty clear where the

playwrights

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

reveals

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

anesthesia,

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

hardboiled.)

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

offstage,

seemingly without inner turmoil.

In a coda to this play of "changin’ times," we watch the

developer

tack up a "Sold" sign on Annie’s place. Returning alone,

Hector

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

Foxfire, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5

South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Performances Fridays

through Sundays, to March 16. $22.50 & $24.


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