Try as the South might to raise the cultural bar, no amount of opera, ballet or progressive drama can hide the fact that below the Mason-Dixon Line, there's always a theatrical endeavor pitched somewhere between Southern gothic and trailer trash waiting to happen. Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias is a prime example, though it has managed to achieve a certain respectability through many stagings and a well-received movie. Playwright Jessie Jones is also a major purveyor of the hillbilly comedy, as co-author (with David Bottrell) of Dearly Departed and (with Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten) The Dixie Swim Club.
Each of these three works has received recent stagings in Middle Tennessee, and doubtless there will be more to come. And let's face it: There is inevitably something funny about simple rural folks dealing with life's vicissitudes — even when death is at hand.
Now we can count local playwright Myra Stephens as a practitioner in this very specific art form. Stephens, known professionally as Myra Anderson through most of the past decade, never appears devoid of ripe dramatic ideas. Most of her original plays have been spoofs on subjects such as fairy tales and grand Southern dramas of the Gone With the Wind variety. She's also dabbled in dramas that address women's issues.
With Daddy Went Home for Christmas, Stephens offers a humorous Christmas story that plays on rural culture — the setting is East Tennessee — and for a good bit of the time, her writing is on par with works by playwrights like Jessie Jones.
The plot is certainly derivative, but no one has a copyright on the sudden death of a family patriarch. In this case, L.D. Cooter passes on Christmas Eve — dead in a car accident — leaving his widow Beulah hanging around the house, waiting for unsuspecting friends and family to arrive for the traditional Cooter holiday open house.
Beulah is consoled by single daughter Ruby Lee, then eventually has to break the bad news to daughter Rudy Dee when she arrives with husband Roy. That precipitates the evening's big conflict, between sisters who are constantly at each other's throats (and clearly have been for years). Ruby Dee takes special pleasure in teasing Ruby Lee about her decade-plus "engagement" to a feller named Squirrel, a nice but very dentally challenged good ol' boy.
Squabbling, gossip and hokey banter fill out a great deal of Act 1 — until, that is, we learn that the local combo dentist/undertaker Mr. Brush has misplaced the late L.D.'s body and needs to hunt the casket down so he can bring it to the family home for a living-room wake.
Between the malapropisms and the moonshine, Stephens stays faithful to her characters, and if none of them is a Rhodes scholar, they are all quite likable in their hyperbolic way.
The play benefits from good casting, with some solid veterans on board and some happy surprises among less familiar faces. Of the latter, there's Adrienne Hope Hite, who is primarily a dancer and appears only rarely in straight plays. As Ruby Dee, she keeps the cauldron of family contention boiling, offering terrific natural presence and a right-nice ornery demeanor. Her sister is played by Joy Tilley Perryman, whose many performances at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre have certainly prepped her for cornpone comedy. She's solid as always, and Matt Coram is also strong as Roy. As Squirrel, Charles Franklin Railing chips in with a charming (if mumble-mouthed) turn. Betty Haynes Davis is matriarch Beulah, and Bakari King provides over-the-top performances as both Mr. Brush and the goofy local Hank.
There are a few other supporting players, and each night, a different local celebrity plays the role of Uncle Bud. Last Saturday night, BroadwayWorld.com writer/reporter Jeffrey Ellis successfully drawled his way through the role. A percentage of the show's nightly take is donated to a charity of the celebrity performer's choice.
A holiday-themed diversion of an unexpected sort, Daddy Went Home for Christmas should please audiences seeking a lighthearted chuckle and a respite from typical seasonal fare.
Franklin's Boiler Room Theatre announced Monday that it will stage a full production of Les Misérables in a limited run in August. The iconic work will be presented as a special three-performance benefit to support the nonprofit theater. Set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Les Misérables is one of the most popular musicals of all time, featuring a powerful score that includes beloved songs such as "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," "Bring Him Home" and more. For this event, BRT ventures outside its familiar 120-seat performance space to utilize the much larger Liberty Hall venue, also located at the company's home base, The Factory at Franklin. Auditions will be held in early March. For more information, call 794-7744 or email email@example.com.
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