The Hairy Man lurks deep in the gnarled and knotted swampland of the South, waiting to capture anyone who crosses his path. He's got powerful magic and often cheats to get what he wants.
But with a little magic of your own, and a lot more cunning, you can banish the Hairy Man forever, just like Wiley does in Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, Wiley and the Hairy Man.
Adapted in 1972 by Suzan Zeder, the play has roots in the African-American oral tradition of the American South. One of the first written versions, by Donnell Van De Voort, was included in the Federal Writer's Project Folklore Collection in Alabama.
At LCT, director Jeremy Kisling conjures a thickly atmospheric bayou tale that entertains and instructs. Wiley's courage and cunning show young audiences how to face their greatest fears. It also, like many folktales, has a practical message: Don't go wandering in the swamps. It's dangerous.
Jerome Wills' lifelike swampland scenery combined with Justine Burke's lighting design creates a spooky, foreboding landscape worthy of the show's near-Halloween timing.
Magda Guichard's costumes are wrought with mossy layers and magical trinkets, feeling like an extension of the wetland countryside. In a few instances, they are.
A handful of actors portray a chorus of swamp, um, things. Not human characters or even animals, these shadowy figures, played by children, are billed in the playbook as Little Moss (Cavan Hendron), Bog Fingers (Nakita Henry), Sludge (Kincaid Keating), Mud Whip (Faith Marts) and Dusk Catcher (Emily Norris).
Their function is part narrative (they hiss and chant connective elements of the story) and part scenic (they slither and spin and sculpturally "become" things like a table and chairs, ash and smoke or a tangle of vines).
Another child actor, fifth-grader J.T. Snow, deserves praise for his performance in the lead role of Wiley. At the 10 a.m. school performance I attended, J.T. hammed up the show's comedic elements to get his peers laughing while maintaining the poetic rhythm of Zeder's script.
As Wiley's trusted canine companion, eighth-grader Emilee Warner has a unique acting challenge: She doesn't have any lines, just barks. Emilee's barking is so convincing you will think she trained for the role by sleeping in a kennel for a month.
The show's only two bona fide grown-ups, Deidre Cochran and Antony Russell, are potent and entertaining foils as Mammy, Wiley's mother, and the Hairy Man. Both are powerful conjurers, who use drums, magic and spells. But the Hairy Man cannot be defeated with magic, only cleverness, an important lesson Mammy teaches Wiley.
Speaking of lessons, there is another message embedded in the fabric of the folktale, that of the single mother trying to steer her child away from the same fate as his wayward father.
The script hints that Wiley's father was a lazy drunk who disappeared from their lives. When Mammy says that the Hairy Man "got" Wiley's father, it's a tidy, figurative way of explaining the past while teaching Wiley how not to repeat it.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.