Monday, February 2, 2009

Theater review: ‘Blowing Rock’ yarn full of hot air

Laurel (Susan Cato) with The Bridegroom (Donte Bonner).

By Hap Erstein
The dual quests for love and for vengeance — two strong emotional urges — are at the heart of Catherine Trieschmann’s The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock, an 8-year-old drama now receiving its professional premiere at Florida Stage.

The time is 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, and the farmers of Appalachian North Carolina are beginning the healing process, trying to get on with their lives. For a young blind woman named Laurel (Susan Cato) and her flirtatious friend Maizey (Lori Gardner), that means finding husbands. For Laurel’s equally single-minded mother, Elsa (Lourelene Snedeker), it means exacting revenge from Union soldiers for the death of one of her sons, Jeremiah.

These are simple folk and if Trieschmann had been around to write her play in the year it is set, we could understand their lack of psychological complexity. Instead, to a 21st-century audience, these characters come off as painfully primitive and two-dimensional. Nor is that impression mitigated by their cornpone dialogue — such lines as “I don’t know what you reckon honor is, but it ain’t fighting for some half-baked cause like secession” — which director Cathey Crowell Sawyer makes worse by having her actors deliver them in capital letters.

Only two of the characters rise above the clunky backwoods speech patterns. The title character (played by a wily, verbally nimble Donte Bonner) is a spinner of tall tales, a fast-on-his-feet inventor of vivid imagery and folk poetry, usually for the sake of seducing the gullible Laurel. Of course, The Bridegroom is a Union soldier, which means that Elsa wants him dead long before she learns of her daughter’s, um, blind affection for him.

Interestingly, Trieschmann specifies that The Bridegroom be an African-American, perhaps for the added irony of Laurel’s colorblind attachment to him. While that seems like a bit theatrically convenient, the fact that the spiteful Elsa makes nothing of his race is an even greater strain on credibility.

The other role that intrigues, though tangential to the main story, is Pastor Burns, an inept preacher with a crush on Maizey. The character might as well wear a sign saying “Comic Relief,” yet when Maizey rejects him, his pain is truly affecting. That, in turn, may be because of the performance of Todd Allen Durkin, surely the most versatile actor on the South Florida scene. But you know something is very wrong when your interest level declines drastically when a minor character is offstage, which is most of the time.

And do not get me started on the clichéd dream sequence of Laurel’s in which, of course, she can see. What she sees are elements of The Bridegroom’s yarns come to life, including a ferocious bear, or perhaps it is just The Bridegroom disguised as a bear. Or The Bridegroom metamorphosed into a bear. Or whatever.

Kent Goetz provides a wooden-planked, multi-leveled scenic design that allows the action to move about with a cinematic flow. If only The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock had someplace of consequence to go.

THE BRIDEGROOM OF BLOWING ROCK, Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Continuing through March 8. Tickets: $42-$45, Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

Laurel (Susan Cato) with Pastor Burns
(Todd Allen Durkin) in ‘The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock.’

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