By Josette Keelor
There's a lot to appreciate in Wayside Theatre's "Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming."
Mike Craver's music is packed with soulful, toe-tapping enjoyment; the text by Connie Ray and Alan Bailey alternates between moments of great joy and of striking loss. But it's the cast's execution of the script and score adapted by Music Director Steve Przybylski that seals the connection "Homecoming" seeks to forge between itself and its audience.
The third in the "Smoke" series, "Homecoming," directed by Warner Crocker, could stand alone. Over its two-hour-and-15-minute Saturday evening of music, it welcomes newcomers like longtime friends. Through frequent interjections of the characters' shared pasts, it provides a background rooted in their love, trust and acceptance of each other and of their faith in God.
Elder daughter June is about to leave her North Carolina home the next day to start a new life in Texas with her husband Mervin Oglethorp and their unborn baby, and her parents, siblings and uncle have only a few short hours to ready themselves for the inevitable.
As Pastor Oglethorp, Wayside newcomer Don Denton is an earnest, energetic, clear-voiced tenor who often outpaces a nine-months' pregnant June, played by Thomasin Savaiano. She puts up with him out of love and duty, but she isn't as "delicate" as her husband and family think. She elicits the majority of the play's laughs through a combination of real and made up sign language and provides the play's entire percussion section of found instruments, like a triangle, washboard and her own hands.
June's family, while impressed with the God-fearing Pastor Oglethorp, understandably wishes he wasn't hell-bent on taking her to what he implies is the farthest-reaching town in Texas possible.
As grown-up twins, Dennis and Denise, Przybylski and Jennie Malone play near opposites, with Dennis earning the room's stricken silence while recalling a fallen WWII comrade, and Denise inspiring laughs through the offstage scolding of her out-of-control 3-year-old boys and her onstage monologues about her perfect parenting.
Through Burl, Bob Payne's stunning speaking voice is so full of expression that it almost becomes a character of its own during story times.
Richard Daniel's Stanley doesn't talk much, but when he does, people listen, and when he sings or plays banjo, people cheer.
And as family rock Vera, Pam Pendleton puts up with a lot, but also dishes out silliness that rivals any of Wayside's previous comedies, sparking giggles and tears from Thursday's audience.
That seven actors in a one-set, two-scene play can elicit every emotion from tears to laughter, especially at the same time, is a feat to admire.
Music helps them all connect and express their emotions, and a series of sermons act like vignettes to help the audience/congregation better understand each.
Still, the play's few subplots could be too subtle for some.
Its few short-lived conflicts are more the result of high emotions than actual threats to the family's cohesiveness. The overarching plot is largely about acceptance of one's duty in life, not so much forgiveness for one's sins.
But the actors' astounding musical talents and charming portrayals more than make up for the play's slow moments and preachy text.
If you think Malone is good on violin, wait until you hear her on accordion. If you're impressed by Pendleton's guitar-playing skills, you'll be bowled over when she cozies up to the upright bass.
The ability of the actors to not only perform the script so well, but simultaneously play an instrument version of musical chairs, is stunning.
Watching "Homecoming" is like witnessing a masterpiece constructed live on stage -- having no idea what goes into it until you see it performed, and afterward still not knowing how they made it all work.
It would be easy to assume this show is all music and little substance, more showmanship than story, but the characters have depth and meaning, and they are true to life.
Disguised among a collection of people who hold entire conversations with nothing but Bible verses are moments of hilarity, tenderness, longing and regret.
Should Wayside Theatre close after the run of this production -- which Crocker told audience members Thursday night could happen if the theater cannot raise $90,000 in 90 days (it's raised $34,000 so far, he said) -- the cast should have no regrets ending its 51-season run with "Homecoming."
"Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming" continues at Wayside Theatre, at 7853 Main St. in Middletown through March 17. For more information, call 869-1776 or visit www.waysidetheatre.org.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org