"Gentlemen, start your engines." Award-winning Gee's Bend playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's latest offering is having its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, strategically or coincidentally scheduled during this year's "Sprint Cup Series". Directed by Geoffrey Sherman, White Lightning -- a mixed-bag of a play combining "racing, moonshine, and revenuers" with a few doses of romance -- features Ms. Wilder's gift for naturalistic dialogue that captures the colloquial speech patterns that delineate her characters and skillfully evoke time and place: the time here being the late 1940s, and the place mostly in rural Georgia.
Whether the scope of her subject (a feel-good fictionalized account of the often anonymous participants of the rustic racing circuit and the beginnings of NASCAR) will have wide appeal is yet to be determined, but White Lightning's two-hour running time on ASF's Festival Stage provides some engaging performances and background to what has become one of America's most established and profitable institutions. How times have changed since then.
The plot centers on Avery McCallister [Matthew Goodrich in his ASF debut], an Army veteran fresh from World War II, whose less than perfect past is made up for by his eagerness to change and to pursue his version of the American Dream by becoming a champion race car driver. He ingratiates himself to Hank Taylor [Rodney Clark], the scheming owner of a local garage and purveyor of gum-ball machines that make him a "legit businessman", but whose profitable side-business is running bootleg moonshine using fast cars on the back roads of Georgia. In exchange for improvements on his $50 junkheap, Avery agrees to work for Hank, but predictably has second thoughts after meeting Dixie James [Becca Ballenger, also new to ASF], whose first appearance looking like Rosie the Riveter establishes her as a challenge to Avery to live up to his potential.
Larry Tobias returns to ASF after his memorable role as Ike in Twentyseven a few seasons back, this time as Mutt, a former driver and ace mechanic who can work his magic on any car, and whose one-word humorous comments and seeming unconcern make him an intriguing character who leaves audiences wanting more. As the numerous short episodes accumulate, and with Mutt's unerring guidance, the on-stage car gradually becomes race-worthy as stage crew dressed in garage overalls add the assorted bits and pieces to it.
A smarmy revenuer named Chester Pike [Brik Berkes], has a long-term "arrangement" to turn a blind eye on Hank's business for their mutual profit; and it should come as no surprise when Mr. Berkes (who cleverly seems to always lead with his paunch) reneges on their "arrangement". For both men, profit is the driving force.
There aren't many surprises or revelations in store in White Lightning, and the uninitiated might need a few more details about NASCAR's history, but the acting ensemble are all solid in their characterizations. -- There is a sweetly youthful romantic discovery between Mr. Goodrich and Ms. Ballenger, and the inevitable face-off between Mr. Clark's conniving Hank and Mr. Goodrich's newly discovered decency as Avery has a palpable tension.
The pursuit of the American Dream, whether through education, business, or pick-yourself-up-by the bootstraps philosophy (as it is in White Lightning) shows that although a lot has changed since early days, America's persistent optimism never falters.