by Michael Bowen
The fictional setting of the current Lake City Playhouse musical is a church, but the production itself also occupies holy ground. Some 35 years ago, the Coeur d'Alene community theater purchased a Mormon church as its headquarters. Today, playgoers sit in what used to be the sanctuary. This genuine setting only reinforces the sense that the audience is supposed to participate actively in the Saturday-night revival that is Smoke on the Mountain. In this show, the audience is the congregation. Judging from opening night, folks will have no problem in contributing to all the foot-stompin' and rhythmic clapping that gospel music -- and the entertainingly high quality of this show -- elicits.
It's 1938, and Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe, new to his flock in Mount Pleasant, N.C. -- just down the road from Hickory, with the Great Smoky Mountains there behind -- is trying to establish a tradition of Saturday-night singing and witnessing. Seated conspicuously in the "Amen Corner" are Miss Myrtle and Miss Maude, the two most prominent members of the tiny congregation. As you might expect, they're puritanical old matrons, puffed up with Southern Baptist prudery. The Sanders Sanctified Singers are supposed to have arrived, but seem to have had an unfortunate accident in the family bus, and so we'll just have to fill in with some familiar hymns until they... why, here they are now!
And the procession of oddballs begins.
Yet in Director Dan Gookin's well-observed production, these are lovable oddballs, these Sanders people. They love the Lord, love singing His praises and trying to observe His commandments. It's just that sometimes they fall a teensy bit astray. Like into prison. (But Uncle Stanley has repented of his crimes, and joins us now on percussion.) Or -- clearly so bad that Papa can hardly bear to reveal it -- they were once almost reduced by hard times into using the family store as a selling place for... beer!
For those Pharisees who happen to be Baptists, the show holds a mirror up to nature -- the sanctimonious nature of those who parade their piety at every opportunity. All the religious-right foibles are here: obsessive Scripture-quoting; sweat-soaked, Bible-waving preachers; melodramatic witnessing and shouts of "Amen!" Yet the show isn't intended only for non-believers and scoffing agnostics; it doesn't play to their prejudices by simply making a mockery of those hypocrites who burn with love of Jesus and love of the flesh. Instead, Smoke portrays forgiveness and the need to get along with all the other members of one's family, no matter how wacky they may be. It's a feel-good show that blessedly doesn't sentimentalize its characters, instead letting them lay out their quirks and simple humanity for all to see.
Oh, and there's some pretty mean fiddlin' and guitar-pickin' goin' on, too, sister. If I wasn't laughing at how ludicrous the witnessing stories were, I was open-mouthed at the musical versatility of the Lake City cast.
By my reckoning, Diana Sandford (as Denise, one of the Sanders twins) plays violin, guitar and piano. Thomas R. Stratton (as Burl, the patriarch) plays bass, guitar, and harmonica, and Sandy Gookin (as June, supposedly the less musically inclined daughter) plays guitar, banjo, piano and ukulele. But in this cast, the award for versatility in both acting and musicianship goes to Warren Lee Adams, Sr. (as Dennis, the other twin; "I'm the boy," he solemnly informs us). With a kind of low-browed backwoods Neanderthal menace, Adams lurks upstage. And he only plays guitar, fiddle, bass and piano, too. As Dennis, whether he's poking Denise with his violin bow (to get her to shut up) or mumbling his way bashfully through a sermon his mother had to write for him, Adams is a hoot.
At the 1988 New York debut of Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's musical, the North Carolina characters apparently seemed bizarre to some uncomprehending city folks. But in regional and small-town theater, the world of Mount Pleasant seems homey -- never more than on the church-stage at LCP. There are other highlights -- the aggressive foot-stomping of Uncle Stanley (David Clemons), the first-act exit of Rebecca Priano (as Vera, the Sanders' mother) and her Sermon of the June Bug. There are missteps -- dropped lines, first-night jitters, under-emphasis of the comedy when June, practicing her signing for deaf people who are absent anyway, gets frustrated at her inability to keep up with some fast-tempo lyrics. Still, it's evident why the Gookins decided to reprise their season-opening production of a year ago. It's a very funny show, and the bluegrass-flavored gospel tunes are infectious.
Past productions I've seen at Lake City Playhouse have been mediocre, so I went into Smoke with the gloomy expectation that a musical about the Depression would be somewhat, er, depressing. But I have seen the error of my ways, brethren. I have wrestled with the Satan of my skepticism and broken free from the sinful bad-mouthing of my critic's animosity. Now, thanks to the angelic choirs and the Lake City cast -- a mist is before my eyes, they seem to merge as one -- I have looked on the light of righteousness, cast off the darkness of my envy, and yea, I have seen a vision. I have seen the musical Sanders bus on the Mercy Seat.
So git on out to that playhouse. Join in all the swaying to the Lord's own music -- Psalm 149:3, "Let them praise His name in the dance; let them sing praises unto Him with the timbrel and harp" -- even if it does scandalize Miss Maude.