Dallas — What's a poor woman to do?
The fast-talking real estate developer is pushing to buy the rocky mountain homestead where you birthed five children, all the survivors gone down the mountain to live their modern lives. Your baby boy, now a hot country singer with kids of his own and marital troubles, is back home and begging you to come live with him by the sea. Worst of all, your stubborn old husband, dead five years, refuses to stay buried in the orchard and keeps jumping into your thoughts and conversations. Takes a woman with a lot of spunk and heart to know what to do.
In Foxfire, a 1982 play by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, with music by Jonathan Holtzman, dauntless Annie Nations (a petite, glowing Elly Lindsay at Theatre Three) is a 79-year-old widow facing the trials of a disappearing Appalachian rural life with courage and determination. Her dead husband Hector (an imposing, fractious John S. Davies) still exerts a dominating force on Annie, leaning over her as she reads letters from her son, and powerfully present in flashbacks of their archetypal moments of courtship, child birthing and the brutish disciplining of sons.
Directed by Emily Scott Banks, the original 1982 production starred Jessica Tandy and Cronyn, one of American theater's iconic husband-and-wife teams. In 1985, Theatre Three's married co-founders, Jac Alder and Norma Young, mounted a hit production starring Young as Annie Nations. This show is historic in more ways than one.
At the outset, Annie's musician son Dillard (a sad-eyed, sweet-voiced Ian Ferguson) has a concert in town and urges his aging mom to leave the old land and ways behind and come live with him and his young children in Florida. The rest of the play assays Annie's dilemma in song and dialogue, as she weighs the cost of pulling up her roots for a modern-day way of life totally foreign to her experience up to now.
Much of the fascinating Appalachian lore woven into the play is drawn from the famous Foxfire books, the outgrowth of a north Georgia high school project in the ’60s that helped keep Appalachian culture and tradition alive through oral history. Like the phosphorescent fungi from which the play takes its title, Annie's memories cast light on the present. The play is filled with planting superstitions that take place "when the moon is full," courting rituals enacted with glee by Lindsay and Davis, and somber traditions of birth and burial that soothe grief through long-held practices. On opening night, Theatre Three Artistic Director Jeffrey Schmidt welcomed his audience by recalling his personal delight in reading the Foxfire books, and an illustrated copy is on display in the lobby.
Director Banks gives her actors room to rant and rave and sing quietly or dance a jig on Jeffrey Schmidt's effective set design, featuring large, three-dimensional murals of old barns, wooded streams and mountains hung high above the arena stage, where a kitchen table and a rocker serve all scenes.
Lindsay is at once a gentle and caring Annie, as well as a model of sassy self-sufficiency as a slightly arthritic older woman, whether dissecting a pig's head to make souse or pulling her formidable self together to give birth as a strong young mountain girl, dealing with a new-fangled doctor in one stunning flashback.
Davies' Hector, despite being a ghost, is a physically vibrant and iron-willed man, making his own way on the mountain but bound by tradition to the old myths and hanging onto life through his beloved Annie's memories. It's quite a detailed and strong performance. The two actors make you believe in love in old age when they lean together after a clash of wills.
Ferguson's Dillard is somewhat subdued in his wrangling with his father's ghost and only slightly more vigorous in his concern for his mother's welfare, but his range of voices and guitar playing during a raucous concert performance and the lyric delivery of his true personal style add much to the show.
Whitney LaTrice Coulter as an earnest young school teacher returned to the mountain, Mark Quach as a comically greedy developer, and Stan Graner as the calmly deliberate doctor contribute their own slices of mountain lore to the play in supporting roles.
This quietly appealing evening has the sweet charm and surprise of a crazy quilt, those bright coverlets patched together by our grandmothers, not in a rigid symmetrical pattern, but from slivers of fancy satin too rare for many repetitions and bits of embroidered baby dresses held dear in a box beneath the four-poster, and then sewn into a memory to sleep beneath. Expect sweet dreams.