Had Robert Penn Warren grown up, say, near Colly Swamp in Bladen County instead of Guthrie, Tenn., a work like Ether Steeds likely would have been the result.
For long after the novel All the King's Men made him famous, Warren was named the nation's first poet laureate when the position was created in 1986. The honor was based on decades of Southern-based work that not only captured the exquisite and the grotesque in both the natural world and the human spirit, but also showed that the two were inextricably linked.
Playwright Jason Williamson's overtly poetic script may not be flawless, but it's notable for how vividly it conveys that same conclusion. And that's a lot more than can be said for the common herd of super-sentimental down-home weepies that get trotted out for regular milkings on the regional stage.
In this account of a difficult coming of age on a failing low-country farm, Skeeta (a vivid Jess Jones) is a troubled, jittery young girl who seems unsure of the very ground on which she walks. For a childhood spent adjacent to the bogs, swamps and wetlands of Eastern North Carolina, that trait might actually predispose a youth toward survival. But Skeeta also constantly tests the people and the stories that surround her—with very good reason: The collection of commonplace and fantastical tales told by her mom (a robust Marilyn Gormon) and deceased father (an aching Douglas Boxley) about the land, the sea, her childhood and the nature of true love, among other things, aren't adding up.
So Skeeta becomes something resembling a nervy, poetic detective, challenging her mother and the men she invites over in an effort to untangle useful myths from the untruths she keeps hearing. She warns one man that the presence of a Venus flytrap on their property proves that "to live here, you have to grow yourself some teeth. Mom grew on this soil. Daddy's teeth weren't no good. This place ate him right up, and when they buried him, the acid in the soil broke him down." Skeeta then asks a taciturn visitor, "How are your teeth?"
Director Steven Roten has correctly calculated that theater alfresco is itself a refreshment, so he's placed this nature-based production on the grounds of N.C. State's Raulston Arboretum. The cool night breeze more than compensates for a minimal set (a single vintage recliner and a rough wooden window frame that represents Skeeta's childhood home).
But uneven performances somewhat reduce the charms of this gritty and lyrical work. It's still a bit too early for beginning actor Bryce Davis to be taking on the major supporting role of Emory, a romantic interest whose dark side was too hypothetical the night we saw it. And we didn't sense enough of a past between Jones' Skeeta and Boxley's Daddy, who seemed too physically stiff with one another to square with their supposed relationship.
But when Jones and Gormon as mother and daughter grapple with each other, and Skeeta navigates the uncertain waters of family, fable and interpersonal relationships on her own, this dark, poetic production runs true. Recommended.