Rather than dwelling on what might have been, I shall instead revel in what is now. And what is now is another Taproot triumph. OK, I am a bad critic, because I go into every Taproot Theatre show with a ready and eager determination to be pleased. Even in shows of which I am not excessively fond, I can find merit in the acting and direction and set design. Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming is, perhaps, even a little more special than the always high-quality, uplifting, entertaining theatre coming from Taproot.
And, I suppose, that is because of the sweet sincerity of the show. If you are not a Christian, you can hardly imagine what it is like to see your religious beliefs held up constantly to mockery and ridicule in entertainment media. It is so very rare to come across a piece of theatrical artistry in which the devout are not portrayed as simpering fools, one-dimensional cut-outs, or -- worst, and by far most common -- sanctimonious hypocrites. Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming -- and, I imagine, the original as well -- sees the Sanders clan and their extended Baptist family as honorable, quirky, interesting, noble, funny, complicated, and sincere. There is some gentle good fun poked at the saints, but the overall charm of the show is that these are godly people doing the best they can to live by their professed ideals. And throwing in a bunch of old-time gospel bluegrass is the cherry on top.
And, in a way, it is the music that is the star of the show. Wonderful songs. It was hard not to think I was in some little Baptist church in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina on a pleasant fall evening in 1945 and just sing along like any member of the congregation. I do not know where Taproot Theatre finds these actors -- able to create lovable, memorable characters as well as play instruments ranging from bass guitar to accordion and, not to mention, sing like angels. I am, however, most grateful that they do.
If you belong to a church family, then you know the Sanders family. Blessed almost to the point of overabundance with musical talent, they match that only with boundless faith. The only thing that makes them bearable at all to us mere mortals is their fundamental honesty. And, as they in turn share their stories during the evening service, you recognize them and love them.
Reverend Merivn Oglethorpe (Kevin Brady) is leaving Mount Pleasant Baptist Church to plant a church in the wilderness of western Texas. He is taking his expecting-at-any-moment wife, June (Jenny Cross), with him. Now, June is the eldest daughter of the Sanders clan, and she is the only one who does not sing. Instead, she has felt called to interpret the hymns in sign-language, and she resolutely sticks to that calling, despite their congregation's never having had someone in need of it.
Her husband is delightful -- still awkward and goofy after years of shepherding his flock, yet untouched by any amount of cynicism or hardness of heart. His leaving is the occasion of this special gathering of the church, where they will sing him out and sing in the new pastor, Sanders scion and singing twin, Dennis (Brent Ashton). This green lad may stutter and stumble at the pulpit, but, underneath, is an iron core of faith forged on the battlefields of World War II, where he served as an army chaplain.
Where there is one singing twin, there has to be another, and that is Denise (Candace Vance) --the one streak of blazing neurosis in this well-grounded family. She's put away dreams of Hollywood stardom to settle into the role of wife, mother and appliance saleswoman, and she's almost reconciled to that. What a set of pipes!
Of course, the heart of the family beats in mother and father, Burl and Vera (Edd Key and Theresa Holmes, respectively). They are everything you want them to be, not a whit more or less. Burl relates his agony over going into debt to purchase the farm his mother rented when he was a child -- a story that resonates in today's debt-soaked culture. Vera's children's sermon is one for the ages (and, as a Sunday school teacher, I could absolutely relate).
Bring a handkerchief or a wad of Kleenex, because Uncle Stanley Sanders (David Anthony Lewis) steals the show. And I wept and wept and wept. So much so, that I had to run out to the bathroom as soon as the final bow was taken, for fear that my tear-stained face (and snot encrusted back of hand) would scare the others, including, with no small consideration, my husband.
Again, my proverbial hat is tipped to director Scott Nolte, who knows how to put on an amazing show. In June it was Around the World in 80 Days; now it is Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. My cup runneth over. Lucky, lucky me! I get to see this show again on August 1!
Go see it for yourself, and come back here and argue with me if you do not absolutely love it!
Taproot Theatre Box Office: 206-781-9707
Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming: July 8 - August 8
One last thank-you to Anne Kennedy, for the opportunity to "sneak preview" this wonderful show.