That could be happier for a critic than to start a new season by reviewing a fun show, very well done, that has the audience ecstatic? Lake City Playhouse begins the fall theater season with Smoke on the Mountain, and it's a sheer delight.
It's a simple conceit, asking us only to accept that it is the 1930s and we are members of the congregation at a meeting of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. The new minister preaches, the leading family of the congregation offers up music and story and we play the part of the community. This show, simple as it sounds, is filled with dangers, and director Bonnie Haleen and her marvelous cast avoid all of them. It's an instance where expert performance seems effortless, the intentionally unaffected seems simply natural and the balances of comedy, music and sincerity are perfect.
This is a well-balanced cast, without a noticeably weak member, and with some who are exceptionally strong. There are excellent voices, but it doesn't come across as a concert performance. Rather, it feels like real people raising their voices in praise. One player, Warren Lee Adams, is a national award-winning fiddler, but he's no showboat. In fact, his character, Dennis, is fearsomely shy and reticent. When he plays, you certainly recognize his exceptional talent, but he never loses the sympathetic connection his character has achieved. He doesn't stop being poor little twin-brother Dennis, he just happens to play the fiddle very, very well.
That also gets at one of director Bonnie Haleen's real achievements with this show. She has a marvelous sense of proportion. Comedy about backwoods traditional religion is familiar material, and she is flawless in pushing everything well in the direction of comic exaggeration, without ever being mocking. As a result, a song about a boy in prison missing his mama is sweetly touching, at the same time that we recognize its maudlin excess.
Preaching is the same sort of skillful exhibition as good fiddling, and even the most tortured metaphors are still given a genuine desire to proclaim the Good Word, however awkwardly. The subplots in this show often consist of no more than glances between characters that we know would love to be having their own play somewhere else, or reactions during dueling scripture matches, or the response of two reluctantly engaged old ladies who sit on the side, shocked and spellbound by the vitality of the service. Haleen keeps it all in proportion, and as a result everything is just as funny as it should be, but never overwhelms the whole show.
The superior moments in this show have to be noted, however. Rebecca Priano-Hopkins is always a presence on stage, and in this show she has clearly given her spark to the entire ensemble, while generously receding slightly from the spotlight herself. When she does have an entirely self-centered piece, as in a parable of the June Bug and redemption, it was a brilliant little comic gem.
I was also impressed by Sandy Gookin, who devised an intriguing, sweet character who compulsively signs, even when she knows that no one in the audience is deaf, and through that device signifies all sorts of other signs and symbols, including a clear interest in the new preacher and a touching desire to be understood in ways her shy words don't allow.
Warren Lee Adams was equally reticent, but in an entirely different way. In addition to his wonderful fiddling, he did a set-piece, delivering his first practice sermon, that was excellent, smartly built and very engaging. His twin sister, Denise, was played with subtlety and charm by Cassie Bray. As the Reverend Oglethorpe, Toby Reynolds is a real discovery. With a strong, clear voice he brought an unexpected musical gift to his fresh-faced and sweetly sincere role.
Tom Stratton played a long-suffering husband to the scripture wielding Vera, and was an obvious mainstay of the instrumental ensemble. And Mark Borsheim used earnest, unvarnished directness to play Stanley, a man of deep feelings and simple expression. Two women in non-speaking parts, Marianne Revels and Alba Jeanne MacDonnell, have to be mentioned. Not only were they delicious as the skeptical old-timers, but they never ended up hamming and drawing focus, while still creating a wonderfully rich ambiance.
Smoke On The Mountain is not just a musical revue, although it is filled with good music. It's not a burlesque on old-time religion, although it gently laughs at that whole milieu. It's country comedy, but not Hee Haw style. It's an invitation to join the members of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, and to see who they are, what they believe and why they're a community. Lake City Playhouse begins the season with a big hit, and the critic gets to stand along with everyone else in the house, grinning and applauding with delight.