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The barricades of home

The many meanings of "Southern"

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"My parents never locked the house doors at night when I was a child. There was no need to." It's a line Southerners of a certain age will reach for when they're disparaging How It's All Turned Out. The anecdote's intended to show how decent and gentle the Earth was once, before the present, inferior age. But for me the thought has always underlined a different truth. Here it is, in one of my mother tongues: There's locks--and then there's locks. Even if the kitchen screen door was the only visible barrier to my grandparents' house, other far less permeable borders surrounded many of the people who visited and lived there. Some were locked in the head, or the heart, or the body. For most, it was a combination of the three.

That's not entirely accurate, either, for I saw that their doors could open to the softest of knocks: a stray animal, the wing-brush of conscience or a line from a swayback-waltz hymn. But some hearts still clicked shut at the strangest of things: Foreigners. Book-learning. A child of a different skin color, economic class or faith.

Now we see things differently. My front door has two locks, and we'd prefer it if you called first before just dropping by: No truly upscale community is now complete without an intercom and gate.

At least the world has become more manageable since we've divided it into two groups: communities of concern and communities of neglect. By "we" of course I mean we in the theater.

Three weeks after Killer Joe did not display the souls of poor white trash, but their mostly naked bodies instead, La Vida Local, a community theater work in Carrboro, gave visibility to worthy children who mainly had no choice when they were brought into a foreign country: ours.

Two weeks after ultra-fundamentalist Fred Phelps preached in the Triangle in order to bar the doors of Heaven to the damned, playwright Motti Lerner bore witness, in the American premiere of Hard Love, to a different kind of fundamentalism sealing the doors of love.

Those contradictory testaments arrived after Archipelago Theatre's latest, The Woman in the Attic, suggested that when the house of the heart is outgrown, the only remedy is to incinerate it.

Voices all from home. You can hear them, just beyond the barricades.

I've got the perfect venue for a revival of La Vida Local , Hidden Voices' moving documentary play about the plight of bright, undocumented Latino high school students in North Carolina. It's 16 W. Jones St., Raleigh.

Sound familiar? It's the legislative building, where House Bill 1183 is currently being considered. That proposal would grant in-state tuition to the children of undocumented aliens, making higher education and economic development possible for a bright, beleaguered group.

Though organized conservative groups have lobbied heavily against the measure, if the legislators could actually see the gifted youth that would benefit, I think they'd pass that bill hands down.

For as our host Patricia Lapadula notes, few of the students sharing their stories on stage actually chose to come to North Carolina. For most, their only crime was being a child in a family torn apart by economic deprivation. "You come here in pieces," she observes. "You're in two places at the same time."

The youth on stage recall home in vivid, poetic imagery. A beloved aunt made moléSouthern"; sauce "as spicy as a red Corvette." A grandmother's propensity for dancing cheers another.

The octet intimately knows just how in between they are, and they tell us. Some have to translate for their parents with the legal, medical and business communities. One is forced to drive her uncle to the grocery store without a license.

They handle their situation with humor--some of it with a decided edge.

"The great thing about the U.S. is that everything gets mixed together, in this melting pot. Are you Puerto Rican, Salvadoran or Colombian? Fine. You're Mexican," one student slyly observes.

Then there's the one about the Puerto Rican, the Colombian and the American who meet a genie who'll grant each one wish apiece. "The Puerto Rican asks for 'Peace and plenty on my island'," another student says, "and is immediately transported back there. The Colombian asks for 'Peace and plenty in my country' and is immediately sent there as well."

"The American says, 'How about a Coke?'"

If you haven't heard--or seen--the one about La Vida Local, contact Hidden Voices artistic director Lynden Harris at info@hiddenvoices.org. A show this good needs to hit the road. Don't forget to e-mail your representative on HB 1183 when you do.

By comparison, the barricades in Motti Lerner's Hard Love surround the hearts of its two principal characters. Novelist Zvi and Hannah were married 25 years earlier, before Zvi rejected the ultra-orthodox Judaism that Hannah subsequently embraced. A generation later, both have had children by different partners. Those two are romantically interested in one another, a situation Hannah finds intolerable.

We're struck most by the collision between two very different worlds in the humble room where the play begins. Lerner certainly draws robust characters, even if he experiences difficulty in both scene and character transitions. We double-take when Hannah fundamentally shifts her rhetorical stance, without reason, in moments separated by a blackout. And to be sure, the ease--and suddenness--of one character's capitulation leaves the same faintly soapy aftertaste as the initial plot device that forces both to meet.

Still, the commitment of both performers easily lifts this production. After years at PlayMakers, it's more than refreshing to see Jeffrey Blair Cornell at work up close in a black-box like Common Ground Theater. Diane Gilboa's interpretation of Hannah is as crisp and starched as her black uniform observing the laws of modest dress.

I won't spoil the twists in plot that drive act two. But I'll pose the questions this intriguing play leaves me with.

Must a lover serve two masters? Is any human justified in asking another to give up their faith? And finally, is Hard Love a play about religions that keep two people apart--or about two people who secretly count on those beliefs to do just that?

The Woman in the Attic crosses different boundaries in its attempt to tell the story of a couple self-sequestered in an old three-story house. As in previous productions, director Ellen Hemphill and writer Nor Hall attempt to fuse theater, choreography, music and vocal techniques to redefine multidisciplinary performance.

A chill pervades as Terry Beck's and Kathryn Williams' married characters try to reconnect with different pasts. Beck's prickly husband is obsessed with order, endlessly laboring on stairs that lead to an ancient attic where earlier memories and possibilities dwell. Meanwhile, Williams' wife tries to remember who she was before her relationship with him.

Hall and Hemphill's imagery is frequently poetic, though it occasionally succumbs to therapeutic-speak. An over-reliance on Jay O'Berski's omniscient narration has this work tell us too frequently of character developments instead of showing them in scenes and dialogue.

Dancer Charlotte Griffin's symbolic representation of a creative spirit connected with the past remains evanescent, though Hemphill's choreography varies. Composer Allison Leyton-Brown's score least rewards in staccato renditions of Neil Young songs, but soars in the humorous "Marriage, Marriage" and the sharp, haiku-like images of "Evolve."

Similarly sharp are abundant stage images Hemphill evokes with this talented cast. But at the end, she and Hall still seem too duty-bound to the extended metaphors they've employed to truly give their story wings.

E-mail Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

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