BEREA — Silas House is a best-selling Appalachian novelist with a national following. His name alone is enough to pack a theater on a rainy Wednesday night.
As patrons rushed into the Jelkyl Drama Center at Berea College to find a last-minute seat, a sign on the door read that the first three performances of the world premiere of his latest play, This Is My Heart for You, are already sold out.
The play, performed by Berea College's theater troupe, focuses on the personal and political ramifications when a national scandal plagues a mountain town after two young men are kicked out of a public pool for "acting gay."
Inspired by what House calls 2011's "summer of hate," in which discrimination against gays and interracial couples made national headlines, This Is My Heart for You is the first of House's plays to feel truly written for the stage and not for the page.
House's first two plays, The Hurting Part and A Long Time Traveling, were lyrically and thematically elegant and satisfying, but they often felt like novels transposed into dramatic text.
His latest venture is an artistic leap toward greater comfort and efficacy in playwriting.
Except for a few blocks of poetic and admittedly beautiful exposition that serve as both refrain and bookend, House is writing with a keener eye for drama, letting go of a dependency on words and cultivating instead powerful images and dramatic moments that stand on their own, sometimes with no words at all and other times with pared-down, melodic and refreshingly authentic Appalachian dialogue.
Adanma Onyedike Barton directs the play with an eye for balancing various narrative techniques that give House's script a three-dimensional depth. She weaves haunting musical interludes by the young female trio Sugar Tree, wordless scenes of dance bathed in crimson light, and a Greek-style chorus into House's narrative to powerful effect.
Splashes of text that occasionally were projected on the floor were a bit distracting, drawing the eye away from the performers.
What is most notable, however, is the material itself.
The play is not so much a political directive about fairness as it is an honest attempt to unravel the religious, social, cultural and, of course, deeply personal emotional complexities of one of the most misunderstood regions of America.
Only an insider could both criticize the dark sides of Appalachia — plain old meanness on Internet sites like Topix and religious fervor that crosses the line into hate — while uplifting its people.
Characters that would be easy to judge — for instance, an ultra-religious mother, Michelle (Victoria Brown), who disowns her son Jesse (Will Bain) when she discovers that he is gay — are portrayed with complex grace.
She truly struggles between her love of him and her religious beliefs, and she needs help navigating that divide. Ironically, she turns to a former church elder, Chatty (played by Brianna D. Perry), whom she had accused of "backsliding." Chatty is estranged from her own son because he is preaching intolerance and judgment of others.
A hug between the two women, each grieving the loss of their sons for opposite reasons, underscores the deep bond between mountain people and the sense of family that prevails even as it is torn apart.
That is the complexity of contemporary mountain life. It's not all banjo playing and canning apple butter. There are dark, difficult questions and conflicts pressing down on its people and, like House himself, only its people can address them.