Stage & Dance

Review: 'Traveling' brilliantly captures poetry of Appalachian language, life

Actors Guild of Lexington is wrapping up its 25th anniversary season in style — with a world premiere of an original play by celebrated Kentucky author Silas House.

Author of the critically acclaimed novels Clay's Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves and Coal Tattoo; the recent non-fiction work Something's Rising; and the play The Hurting Part, House is best known for his stirring portrayals of rural life in Appalachia.

Long Time Traveling continues in this vein, bringing hauntingly familiar yet often overlooked aspects of the emotional lives of its characters to the forefront as a family struggles to reconcile their individual inner lives with one another's, while also enduring the "real life" restrictions of their outer lives.

Rather than limit the scope of the play's setting to a specific area, the playbill simply reads that the setting is "rural America." And where does all the great drama of rural America take place? The back porch, of course. There, we first meet Adam and Lora, a couple who married young and who experience growing tensions when Adam (Josiah Correll) decides he wants to be a poet. Still reeling from the death of her father a year ago, Lora (Hayley Williams) is threatened by everyone and everything changing around her, including Adam's fascination with writing and reading.

Even her own mother, Chatty (Missy Johnston, brilliant), appears to be undergoing changes too radical for Lora to accept. After 37 years as a minister's wife, Chatty begins rebelling — in her own comical but nonetheless poignant ways — against the church that was the rock of her husband's life and that carved its penetrating influence so deeply into her children's psyche.

Refreshingly original, this show's strength is its natural rhythm and richly authentic technical and cultural details, all punctuated by the organic unfolding of truths both beautiful and unsettling. Still, on opening weekend, when I saw the play twice, the experience fell just shy of perfect.

To borrow from computer lingo, the performers and material have yet to sync up properly. As an Eastern Kentucky native who was baptized in the Ohio River the old-fashioned way, I can attest to the haunting accuracy of House's language and the little, exacting cultural details that accompany it.

In fact, perhaps nothing is more pleasing to native Appalachian ears than to hear our language finally rendered with accuracy, aplomb and respect. Who hasn't winced at the treacherous Hee-Haw-isms that are still widely accepted in less sophisticated works?

Thank goodness this production isn't like that. How rare and welcome!

It is clear that director Richard St. Peter and his cast considered this challenge carefully. However, there are brief stretches in the production when the actors haven't quit caught up with the language, when it wields them more than they wield it. This is particularly true in highly emotional scenes when drawls wane or the musicality of the language wobbles.

That said, Long Time Traveling is the most accurately rendered regional play I have seen.

Other technical details complement the performances — like the slam of the porch's screen door, the one or two missing threads of lattice along the porch's base, the wafting sounds of children playing while Lora hangs clothes out to dry.

And then there is, of course, the meaning of it all, the exploration of how and whether any of us can become the person we want to be, or think we already are.

House does not pound anyone over the head with obviousness to his themes or even conventional plot structure. In fact, by theater standards he could afford a bit more head-pounding drama, but that is not his style. Instead, the play's meaning sneaks up on the audience stealthily. It is easy to get caught up in the back porch-isms, to feel less like audience members at a play and more like kinfolk sitting on the stair steps as conversations realistically wax and wane from jokes to family secrets to accusations and defenses to near-violence to singing to stringing beans and screwing up dinner.

Deep life happens — that is to say, deep change — amid this unglamorous regularity. And that is all right.

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