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Road shows? 

Regional theater festivals beckon from near and far. But before getting out the road map...

click to enlarge Tough love: Raymond S. Rodgers as Big Daddy and Adam Williams as - Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - PHOTO COURTESY OF THEATER OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH FESTIVAL
  • Photo courtesy of Theater of the American South Festival
  • Tough love: Raymond S. Rodgers as Big Daddy and Adam Williams as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The various backers were gambling on the proposition that nature isn't the only thing that abhors a vacuum--audiences do as well. So in 2005, they launched a couple of major festivals to shake up the summertime status quo. First came Stoneleaf, the North Carolina Theatre Conference's ambitious 10-day Asheville invitational featuring companies from across the state. Hot on its heels: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, a summer-long series of works by regional and national artists, helmed by that Raleigh fine arts family whose name appears in the title--in the studio theater at Progress Energy Center that bears the same name.

Both festivals distinguished themselves. Both are back. An expanded Stoneleaf makes its stand in Asheville this Friday through June 4. Out of far too many highlights to mention, PlayMakers Rep has Julie Fishell direct John Feltch in the controversial 2004 Pulitzer and Tony award-winner I Am My Own Wife.

(Though Asheville audiences will see it next week, a question apparently remains concerning when or if PlayMakers will actually stage the work in Chapel Hill. Tentative plans have it in Kenan Theater for one week only, September 13-17--some three weeks before Steve Martin's modest 1985 sex farce, The Underpants, officially opens the PlayMakers new season in October.)

Also, Asheville puppeteer Pamela O'Connor will pull some strings to make an unconventional adaptation of the 17th-century text The Anatomy of Melancholy. (Full festival details are at www.stoneleaftheatrefestival.com.)

In the midst of that, Hot Summer Nights opens its six-show season in Raleigh with family fare familiar to this region--the musical Forever Plaid--on May 31. A combination of similarly small-scale musicals, dramas and revues runs at Kennedy Theater through Aug. 27. The eponymous Web site: www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org.

But a new entry in the '06 festival stakes has now made a claim on our fine arts (and traveling) dollar. Last weekend, the town of Wilson--a barbecue mecca that's a brisk 40-minute jaunt down Highway 264 east of Raleigh--inaugurated its Theater of the American South Festival, which runs through June 4 (see www.theateroftheamericansouth.org for the schedule).

Their first year's effort features an impressive three-weekend expo of daytime author appearances (including Nancy Roberts, our state's most famous ghost story writer, and founding Red Clay Rambler Bland Simpson), culinary events and gospel music concerts anchored by nighttime and matinee performances of two mainstage productions. Actor Troy Mink's 2002 one-person show, The Haint, is transplanted here from Seattle, in repertory with a regionally produced staging of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both works are being performed in the Boykin Cultural Center, a largely renovated, 650-seat vaudeville house dating back to 1919, downtown on Nash Street.

We viewed The Haint on DVD in time to sneak an endorsement in the Indy last week. This past weekend, we caught Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in person. Our consumer advisory: of the two, one is really worth the trip.

The Haint is an amazing, amusing actor's workout of a one-person show, a send-up of small town ways--and documentaries, cultural tourism and pop spirituality, among other things. Through a series of vignettes, we meet 13 addled citizens from Midway, a rural Tennessee community whose economic implosion might be delayed if a local ghost draws tourists to the town. Ultimately, they--and we--learn that troubled spirits doomed to walk the earth are rarely all that civic-minded.

Mink's broad cast of villagers range from a hapless, haunted nephew to a cranky old chain-smoking neighbor, with the odd salvation-shouter, lawman and huckster thrown in for seasoning. But the humanity of his finely crafted characters, including a simple-minded man-child who doesn't have to believe in ghosts and a sharp but sweet-spirited old religious woman, give this work its savor. Though I've only met Sister Opal Avery once, I'll carry her memory with me for some time to come.

The only caveat about The Haint: This one-act's 57-minute running time might feel less than a full evening to some. But what's here is choice, and memorable; a funny look at small-and-big-town foibles, with a chill or three in the mix.

Unfortunately at this writing we can't entirely say the same for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. True, director Tony Lea has enjoyed some success among the middle echelon of local directors over the past 10 years. But last summer's production of Cat at Hot Summer Nights (which regional playgoers would inevitably be comparing with this work) demonstrated that our area can produce a Williams worthy of a major regional festival--a feat that something called "Theater of the American South" presumably aspires to.

On opening night last Friday, questions of range dogged the clearly talented--and clearly still developing--young actors Kristin Wetherington as Maggie the Cat and Adam Williams as Brick. We feared when Raymond S. Rodgers came off far too muted as Big Daddy at the start. Gratefully, his work unfolded as the evening continued; by its end we appreciated his rapport with the prodigal Brick.

But underdevelopment in supporting roles (including a mildly conniving Brotherman Gooper and Sisterwoman Mae) speaks to a world not fully explored or articulated, either by the actors or director.

The final word on this opening opus: We've seen better quality work on local stages in the very recent past. Instead of a performance we'd associate with a major regional festival, the Theater of the American South's production presently rises only to the level of medium- to high-grade community theater. Which is a pity, since, at its best, this area produces work that matches the professionalism and artistic achievement of the major theatrical centers in the United States. It would be great to see that work reflected in future offerings by Theater of the American South.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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