Stage & Dance

For Silas House, plays have become commentary

Silas House remembers the accusation clearly.

He was fresh off the success of his first novel, Clay's Quilt. Back home in Lily, he wrote an op-ed piece for a local newspaper, saying schools were choosing sports over academics too much.

"One of the letters that was written in said, 'Silas House has forgotten where he came from since he went to New York and started drinking champagne with his pinky stuck out,' " House recalls. By the way, he says, he doesn't like champagne.

House says the term is "getting above your raisin," applied to people who break the expectations of their modest roots, sometimes to the chagrin of people back home.

It's one of the central conflicts in House's new play, Long Time Travelling, which opens this weekend at Actors Guild of Lexington.

Play writing is the latest venture for the author, who increasingly finds that he has a voice to comment on the world around him.

Case in point: House's latest book, Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal (co-written by Jason Howard, University Press of Kentucky, $27.95), is a non-fiction condemnation of the controversial style of coal mining practiced in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere.

But House says he makes his points best through fiction.

"Art allows the viewer, reader, listener, to garner information and then make their own decisions," House says. "I think that's what's so important about art for inspiring change and informing people. It gives the people power and doesn't just hammer things in their heads."

Change is the central theme of Long Time Travelling.

This is House's second work for the stage. His writings have centered on his Eastern Kentucky home. His first play was The Hurting Part, which premiered at University of Kentucky Theatre in 2005. That was about the time that Actors Guild became interested in working with House.

"I said, 'We have a theater. Write what you want, and we'll put it on stage,' " AGL artistic director Richard St. Peter recalls of their first meeting.

St. Peter, who is directing Long Time Travelling, says House gave him a timely play about change that comments on current events without mentioning Democrats, Republicans or President Barack Obama, or ripping anything at all from today's headlines.

"The play asks, 'What price change?,' and without demonizing people who are opposed to change, asks, 'What are you afraid of?' " St. Peter says.

This happens chiefly in the marriage of Adam (played by Josiah Correll) and Lora (Hayley Williams), childhood sweethearts who are drifting apart. Adam has taken an interest in literature and writing through a community college course. Lora doesn't understand it and doesn't like it, wondering why Adam can't be content with his job as an auto mechanic.

Lora also still mourns the death of her father, a preacher beloved by his congregation but not so much by his family. Except Lora.

She is shocked as her mother, Chatty (Missy Johnston), expresses relief he is gone, and as Chatty and Adam question his fundamentalist teachings.

"Look at politics and the way religion controls change in politics," House says, "the way one faction wants to go forward and one faction wants to go to the past, and one faction wants to revert to the far past. It all usually boils down to religion.

"Flannery O'Connor calls the South the 'Christ-haunted' landscape, and that's certainly true of where I grew up, and all my characters seem to live back there.

"For me, it was the best way I knew to comment on the idea of change."

House says Long Time Travelling was written during the 2008 presidential campaign, and it dawned on him that to many people, change is just a word. He also says the play came from changes he has undergone over the past eight years, going from a modest Eastern Kentucky mail carrier to a celebrated novelist.

"Constantly, I would come home and people would accuse me of 'getting above my raisin,' no matter how conscious I was of not doing that," House says.

In portraying his home area, House makes it apparent at a rehearsal for Long Time Traveling that he strives for accuracy and respect. One conversation during a practice on Monday night centered on the music that was being played. The tunes were fairly traditional bluegrass. House chafed at that, saying it was "offensive" to assume Eastern Kentuckians' musical tastes are so limited.

Music is a big deal to House, who also has written press kits for Nashville artists and features for music magazines. At the beginning of rehearsals for Long Time Travelling, he passed out CDs to the cast with songs that he said he listened to and had in mind while creating characters.

His notes with the CD included: for Denomination Blues by Rodney Crowell, "The way Adam feels about religion and the point the play is trying to make," and for Bend by Ben Sollee, "What these characters have to learn to do in their relationships."

Even the play's title comes from a song: Long Time Traveller by the Wailin' Jennys.

The actors in the production say they enjoyed the music and made discoveries listening to it. But what they really enjoy is performing House's words.

"It's really different, because it's written so honestly and naturally," says Williams, the actor playing Lora.

Not surprisingly, language is important to House. Many rehearsal discussions with him centered on regional words and phrases, as well as how thick accents should be.

Plays that focus on language ultimately bring to mind William Shakespeare.

"It's a lot more relaxed than Shakespeare," says Johnston, who plays Chatty. "But it is similar in that this is a language play. It basically all takes place on a back porch, and people talk through some really difficult things."

That might be the most important aspect of House as a social commentator. To invoke another old saw: Often, as important as what you say is how you say it.

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