When someone in Smoke on the Mountain says, “Let's pray,” you may just find yourself bowing your head and closing your eyes.
That's a big sign the Lexington Stage Co. cast is fulfilling creator Alan Bailey's and writer Constance Ray's intent for the show: transforming the theater into a rural North Carolina church, circa 1938.
The Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe is a bundle of nerves at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church's first Saturday night singing. He's invited the Sanders Family Singers to the event, introducing modern instruments such as guitar and fiddle to the small sanctuary, and he knows some members might not approve — particularly church matriarchs Maud and Myrtle, who are sitting in the front row.
He's praying the singers will redeem his efforts to bring progress to the church.
The reverend also has a little showbiz in him, and he can't help barging in on the Sanders family's act.
Part of the fun of the script is that it presents characters and tensions familiar to anyone who regularly goes to church.
The Stage Co. production, presented by Studio Players at its Carriage House Theatre, is a triumph for director Michael Grice.
He spent most of the spring scrambling to cast the show, which requires a number of actor-instrumentalists. What he finally whipped together was a cast that feels quite plausibly like a family band.
The ringers are Evan Sullivan as Reverend Oglethorpe and Jessie Rose Pennington as June Sanders, both fresh off playing the leads in Paragon Music Theatre's The Music Man. They both make the most of their parts, but even performers who are in their first play leave lasting impressions.
Wes Maynard is a guitarist with Pickintime, a Bluegrass ensemble that also contributes bassist Pamela Maynard and banjo player John Mattingly to the show. But early in Act II, as prodigal son Stanley, Wes delivers a moving testimony about longing for home while serving time in prison. And Debra Hoskins has several hilarious moments.
There are some rough edges. A few actors need to work on projection. But no one in the cast seems to forget where they're supposed to be, which is a key to making the audience forget where we are.
When Smoke is over, you don't know whether to clap or shout, “Amen!”