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Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes; Intimate Apparel 

On the boards

Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes
Temple Theatre
Through Sept. 30

When Nashville veteran and off-Broadway star Jason Petty steps onto the stage in a Nudie suit, black leather cowboy boots and a wide-brimmed hat, it's hard not to do a double take. Petty looks like Hank Williams and channels him—not only in appearance, but in spirit. Petty is tall, gaunt and clean shaven, speaking with a slow country drawl that warms the heart as he welcomes the crowd to the show. When he opens his mouth to sing "Move it on Over," his confident smile and steady guitar strokes confirm that the actor is familiar with his material.

Indeed, Petty has been playing Hank Williams since 1996, when he starred in an off-Broadway production titled Hank Williams: Lost Highway—a role that garnered him rave reviews and an Obie award. When that show ended, Petty didn't let that stop him from continuing to be Hank. The revue now playing in Sanford is Petty's own creation, the product of research and interviews with surviving witnesses. The results of Petty's field work are on impressive display throughout the show as he shares anecdotes and insights into an entire country music subculture.

Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes is not a re-enactment of the events of Williams' life but a carefully researched retelling of the history and emotions behind the man and his music. Petty speaks in his own voice when relaying the timeline of Williams' life, and only slips into full-on impersonation mode when he's singing the hits that elevated an impoverished Alabama street urchin into country music Valhalla.

Backing Petty is his stellar band, complete with fiddle (D.H. Finch), bass (Dave Martin), guitar (Steve Newman) and steel guitar (Russ Weaver). The band works with Petty to anchor the story, accentuating the sadder parts of Williams' life with the downtrodden wail of a fiddle or the lonesome moan of steel guitar. Together, Petty and the band work through Williams' life in song: "Lovesick Blues," "Cold, Cold Heart," "Jambalaya on the Bayou," "Kaw-Liga" and "Your Cheatin' Heart" are among the better reworkings of the canon. Petty attacks each number with conviction, wailing and moaning the lyrics like he feels the weight of the words on his own shoulders. But perhaps the most appealing aspect of the performance is Petty's easy nature and outgoing stage banter. As much as the musical revue focuses on Williams' life, Petty also offers tidbits and insights into his own life, telling the story of his marriage and boasting of the birth of his baby girl.

Petty puts on a riveting performance that divides itself equally between two men: Petty and his idol. And for the vast majority of us who weren't around to witness Williams' all-too-brief career, Petty's show—with its carefully constructed honky tonk atmosphere—is a startling and convincing substitute for the real thing. —Kathy Justice


Intimate Apparel
Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Sept. 23

Just as people wear clothes to hide the imperfections of their bodies, the characters in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel wrap themselves in lies in order to hide their fears from themselves and those around them.

Set at the dawn of the 20th century, Intimate Apparel tells the simple tale of Esther Mills (Barbette Hunter), a 35-year-old African-American seamstress who has worked almost continuously since she was 9 years old. Esther aspires to open a beauty parlor in town, one where all women could go and "be treated like a lady." Her tiny world of loyal friends (some of whom double as customers) and the slow but steady achievement of her dream is interrupted when an unexpected letter arrives from Panama bearing an important plot development: In it, she learns that a laborer named George Armstrong (Joseph Callender) is interested in courting her. Intrigued, Mills begins an initially tentative, then bold, epistolary romance with George, one that results in a test of commitments for the characters as they navigate the hazardous shoals of race, class, sex and religion toward personal happiness.

Hunter conveys Esther's gumption and subtlety with grace and vigor, portraying her character's willingness to work hard and refusal to be victimized, while Callender shows his range as an actor in his role as her hard-working suitor. It must be said, however, that the stage presence of Callendar, who also works as a model and firefighter, created some unintended and distracting murmurs among audience members evidently appreciative of his physical attributes.

Under the direction of Linda O'Day Young, Intimate Apparel is a strong, emotionally resonant experience. At times, though, the show flickers and threatens to fade: Cast members occasionally let honest reactions edge past them, forcing them to grapple for a disingenuous emotion before quickly recovering and landing strongly on their feet. On balance a solid production, Intimate Apparel is a story of finding strength in the face of betrayal and broken dreams. —Megan Stein


The Complete History of America (Abridged)
Theatre in the Park
Extended through Sept. 15

Penned in 1993 by the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, The Complete History of America (Abridged) is something of a warhorse, with numerous Triangle productions over the years. Still, the durable script crams America's historical timeline into a delightful series of vaudevillian one-liners, gender-bending sketches, word association games and brilliantly played homage to TV-land and pop culture.

But perhaps the most startling and endearing element this production offers is its profound irreverence for our heritage and its ability to point out the foibles, mistakes and humanity of our leaders. The play is an equal-opportunity offender and stays clear of genuine subversiveness (for that—without the laughs—one might look for a staging of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States). Still, Complete History is a refreshing and uproarious corrective to the notion that history is a parade of dull dead men. —Kathy Justice


How I Got That Story
Deep Dish Theater
Through Sept. 15

Amlin Gray's How I Got That Story satirically depicts a country enveloped in the dissonant culture of war, told through the narration of a naïve reporter, played by Kit FitzSimons, who finds himself in "Amboland," the playwright's fictitious Vietnam stand-in. As the reporter's ongoing foil, Derrick Ivey's roles are subsumed under the rubric of the "Historical Event," meaning that Ivey adeptly portrays the 21 characters FitzSimons encounters while reporting from the war zone.

The only noticeable shortfall in the Paul Frellick-directed production of the Obie award-winning play is its lack of commitment to dealing with the drugged hypnosis that can envelop a country at war and ensure its downfall—a dark and deep pool of destruction into which this show only dips its toes. Otherwise, Deep Dish proffers audiences talent in a hip production, cleverly covering the magnitude of war's repercussions with a relevant urgency in the context of our current situation in Iraq. —Megan Stein

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