On the heels of riveting productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and 33 Variations, AthensWest Theatre closes its inaugural season with Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge, a rollickingly entertaining, small-scale, bluegrass-twinged musical based on J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, who penned the music and book, respectively, lifted Synge’s story from rural Ireland, transplanted it to 1929 Appalachia, and added a suite of toe-tapping, and occasionally, soul-stirring tunes.
The play is about Clayton (Mark Mozingo), a young man who flees his home after killing his tyrannical father and finds refuge in a small town that becomes enamored with his dark, increasingly fantastical tale of patricide. Chief among his admirers is Maggie (Jenna Day), a young woman who tends to her father’s rural store and is lonely and bored by the prospect of marrying underwhelming local dullard Luther (Elliot Lane). But Maggie’s admiration is built around a false mystique, which eventually is shattered in a way that has consequences for everyone.
The Appalachian setting is a cozy fit considering the region’s strong ties with Irish heritage, and the show’s focus on the musical language of a rural people struggling with poverty and, to some degree, existential boredom, presents a striking parallel between the two locations.
As a native of Appalachia who currently works for an Appalachian nonprofit, and who also has had a long-term love affair with Ireland, I ought to have instantly fallen in love with Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge. But instead, I left the theater with a divided mind about my experience.
On one hand, the objective one, I was impressed by the show’s technical and performance elements. Make no mistake, AthensWest is producing high-quality theater and, after four shows total, that is a given.
Margo Buchanan’s keen direction strikes a satisfying balance between high-energy, laugh-out-loud scenes and pensive moments of reflection as the main characters wrestle with how, and if, to move forward meaningfully in their lives. Scenic designer Robyn Maitland Ross’ sprawling country store setting struck a chord with me before the show even started; the exaggerated heights of its doors, shelves, windows, etc., underscores the towering influence of the local culture, which can be both admirable and limiting at the same time.
Mozingo, returning to the role of Clayton which he originated, delivers a spirited performance alongside Day, whose bright elegance and soaring voice is responsible for some of the production’s most stirring moments, particularly her performance of the song Golden Boy.
Gratefully, the pair — as well as their nine castmates — wield the Appalachian dialect with organic ease, proving that Lexington’s regional ties to Appalachia are an enormous boon to the production. Side note: a quick Google search reveals that Reichel has a background in rural Georgia, which explains the native flow of her regional language.
Strong supporting performances by Karyn Czar and Tim X. Davis deliver high doses of humor while pivoting the plot forward. Czar provides much of the first act humor as the meddling widow Hazel, who pits love-triangle suitors Clayton and Luther against each other for her own gain. Davis relishes his second act “reveal” as a not-dead-yet character that turns Clayton’s heroic tales on its head and the whole town, including Maggie, against Clayton. Davis’ brash, booming portrayal of Leroy is smack in the center of Davis’ wheelhouse as a performer; as a result, he creates some of the second act’s most knee-slapping, comically rewarding moments.
The supporting ensemble, including Jonathan Watson, Rebecca Keith, Jessica Agro, Peter LaPrade, Adam Sovkoplas and Lisa Braswell, squeeze even more humor from the show as the townspeople who are captivated by Clayton’s tales.
So if everything is so good, what is my problem?
The problem is the other, mightily subjective hand. I came to this show with something I try (and usually manage) to avoid: a personal agenda. I expected and wanted the show to be even more Appalachian than it was. A few of Mills’ tunes do have that authentically bluegrass feel, but the vast majority of them, despite being played on fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass, still sound like show tunes straight out of New York. It feels like bluegrass light, or a send-up to the idea of bluegrass without actually being bluegrass.
Further, I wanted the Depression-era Appalachian setting to have an even deeper artistic purpose. Beyond highlighting the strong cultural parallels between rural Ireland and rural Appalachia, Mills and Reichel weren’t saying anything artistically new or compelling about the region and its people and, as one of those people, I admit that I am hungry for that. Taking the hunger metaphor to ridiculous ends, I wanted cake and I got pie. And the pie was good. But I still have a hankering for what I didn’t get.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
‘Golden Boy of the Blue Ridge’
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of a musical written by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, with music and lyrics by Peter Mills, based on J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.
When: 8 p.m. April 28-30; 2 p.m. May 1
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 adults, $20 senior adults and military