Sunday, April 25, 2010

Red Door: "Conecuh People"

Once more, the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs is presenting "Conecuh People" by Ty Adams and directed this year by Randy Thornton. Based on Wade Hall's book, the story looks back at the Hall family of the 1940s and 1950s, and evokes a past-time with pleasant nostalgic reminiscences.

The story is narrated by Tyson Hall in the role of Wade Hall, Jr. His naturalistic mannersims, pleasant singing voice, and comfort in the role immediately get audience interest and engagement as he introduces a host of family, neighbors, teachers, and assorted Bullock County citizens whose advice and example molded him from childhood and led him ultimately to "find my place in the world."

Thereafter, the play is little more than a series of monologues and brief scenes, interspersed with folk songs and church hymns, that trace his journey of self-discovery leading him to admit that like all of us he is influenced by people who might otherwise go unnoticed by society.

At two-hours and forty-five-minutes, this gentle story takes far too long to tell, partly due to all-too-frequent "dead" moments when nothing is happening on stage, and partly due to the deliberately slow pace that gives the same weight of importance to every character, no matter how minor an influence on Wade, Jr. Even the songs are slow and ponderous.

The language is often poetic, reflecting the original book's haunting descriptions, but much of this cries out for lively delivery and energetic movement which, when it does occur in this production, is a most welcome change.

Kim Graham as Wade's math teacher Estelle Cope Campbell, and Janet Wilkerson as the snuff-dipping Elma Lee Hall, bring such energy to their roles. Though Ms. Wilkerson's indulgently long monologue is in need of judicious editing, both these women enliven the action.

Anne Brabham plays Aunt Emma's generosity in caring for Wade with appropriate gentility; Betty Hubbard's depiction of "Mama" when she is forced to leave her grandson is one of the most touching moments in the play.

Peggy Windham as Wade's mother, "Babe", is thoroughly committed in her role, but the interpretation is so much at odds with the text's description of Babe's intelligence and passion, that to see her as a dazed and bewildered simpleton is jarring.

Hats off to Aleta Davis, a gifted singer and actor, for providing the most truthful character and the most credible characterization in this version of "Conecuh People". As Verse Lee Johnson Manley, the Black woman who raised Wade, giving her every right to call him "my baby", Ms. Davis plays every moment as if it was happening for the first time. -- She trusts in her baby's ability to help her "get a birthday and an age" without the benefit of a birth certificate; when they succeed and Verse Lee "becomes a person" at last, her joy electrifies.

"Conecuh People" has had a number of incarnations for some years, each one with a distinct interpretation. As a work-in-progress, it might be a good idea to take a few years off from performing it to incubate a new version.