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Southern studies, part two 

Subtle does it

The week after Crossroads, Temple Theatre's white bread and cardboard put-on of a Southern musical, hit the boards, what was on the menus at regional theaters? Two plays and one musical. About the South. In this business, folks, timing is everything. But we put away the long knives once we saw characters and plots with more integrity than the weightless claptrap of the week before. To be sure, both Graceland's Elvis-centric comedy and Das Barbecü's broadside Texas twang (and live band) had crowd-pleasing on their minds. Still, both shows were crafty enough to get us laughing before sneaking in a series of emotional sucker-punches that had to make us reassess their depths.

Even here, there's a fork in the road. After saddling Das Barbecü's characters with one of the more convoluted plots in all of Western civilization--Wagner's Ring cycle, of all things, condensed to a still too-long two hours and transplanted to the Southwest--Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender occasionally have them open their mouths and say a few things both simple and true about love and loss. Georgia Rogers Farmer--here put to much better use than on recent outings at Temple--stops the show when her "County Fair" has the unlikeliest Brünnhilde we've ever seen pining for the uncomplicated life. Later, Lisa Dames' Fricka--a good ol' girl married to a straying Wotan--gives us a "Wanderin' Man" that Miss Patsy Cline might have envied. In a show that's still long on bombast and lengthier, less successful numbers that belabor various plot points, Barbecü scores when characters respond to outlandish situations with the last thing we'd expect: relatively pure, human-sized emotions.

By contrast, playwright Ellen Byron makes us laugh--and then almost immediately examine why we did. There are jokes aplenty in her script for Graceland, and many of them come at the expense of Bev, a middle-aged frump of an Elvis devotee, or the younger Rootie as the pair square off--in as ladylike a manner as possible, under the circumstances--to be the first person admitted to the King's mansion when it first opens to the public in 1982.

But the moment we write either of them off, Byron reminds us just a little bit more that, for decades, Elvis was (and, no doubt, still is, for some) Southern culture's answer to the Virgin Mary: an intercessor to be invoked in times of desperation, and the sublimated, perfect love of uniquely lonely people.

As Bev and Rootie, Sherri Sutton and Estelle Collins both amuse us--before each breaks our heart a little bit. Kenny Gannon's direction is as surefooted as it should be, since this marks the director's third (but by far most public) visit to this script since 1994.

The second of Byron's two one-acts, Asleep on the Wind, arguably provides a bit too much information in a prequel for one of Graceland's two characters, 10 years before. As loving brother Beau, Chris Chappell affectionately bluffs and jives--and aches as he knows what's to come--on this one night on the bayou with his one bon cher. Though Wind remains more a scene than a play on some levels, the last image of the work still burns in. Worth the seeing.

**Crossroads , Temple Theatre--Most Temple productions in recent years haven't pandered to Southern mass taste as nakedly as Robert Inman's truly mediocre musical, in which a train wreck deposits the denizens of a Wild West show on the outskirts of Cross Roads, N.C. in 1914. Think the place name is generic? Check out the characters: a high-minded widow who's the moral center of her family, a wide-eyed ingénue of a daughter, an ultimately weightless, paper-thin hellfire and brimstone preacher for a grandfather--and don't forget that universally loved, itinerant black servant (and jazz dancer!) who's been befriended--as an equal--by this amazingly right-thinking group of people. Sound like your North Carolina history?

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