4/2/2023 BRIGHT STAR Georgia Ensemble Theatre
ONCE UPON THE ASHEVILLE LINE
There was a time when a train line ran from Raleigh to Asheville, passing North Carolina rivers and towns filled with working families and heartbreak. It is 1945 and the war has ended. Billy Cane has survived the mud and the blood and rides that train back to his family in Hayes Creek, only to discover that his mother has died. Reuniting with his childhood friend Margo, Billy decides to turn his fondness for story-telling into a career, and sets off to Asheville, to sell his stories to the Asheville Southern Journal, a literary magazine that launched the careers of such southern Bright Stars of Letters as Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and an up-and-comer named Tennessee Williams.
He tells an outlandish lie that catches the attention of hard-skinned editor Alice Murphy (“A good liar is a good story teller”). She decides to read his stories because there is just something compelling about the young man.
But that’s not the real start of this story. As the show begins, we meet Alice who wants to tell us her story, not Billy’s. So, once we meet the glum editor, we flash back to her teenage years (1924), to a tale as old as time, to another small North Carolina town along the Asheville line, a town called Zebulon. Sixteen-year-old Alice is the poor daughter of a strict religious man and has fallen in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs, the son of the wealthy mayor. A secret tryst, a secluded cabin, an innocent child, a mayor who will not have this girl ruin his son’s future. In a terror-drenched night, Alice gives birth and has her baby ripped from her arms and given up for adoption. But Mayor Dobbs will not leave anything to even the smallest turn of
chance and fate, and Act One ends with Alice’s baby placed in a satchel and tossedoff the train in the middle of the night in the middle of a bridge in the middle of a forest.
Perhaps you have heard the old song and folktale of the “Iron Mountain Baby”? If so, you may calculate how this story will end. If not, the clues are all there. The veteran who has lost his mother, the mother who has lost her son, the young man who has turned his back on his one true love because it would be a Heartbreaker of a revelation if he told the truth, the childhood friend who has waited patiently for war’s end, the preacher who cannot forgive himself, the mayor who dies in agony without a shred of remorse.
Bright Star is a bluegrass-infused tale, a yarn built on the backbone of every Southern writer who plumbs the depths of family skeletons and truest love. It bears a superficial resemblance to that favorite (of mine), the 1975 bluegrass musical The Robber Bridegroom (itself based on a novella by Eudora Welty); but it is its own work, an original and heart-pounding piece that pulls out all the emotional stops, filtering the stories and timelines through a foot-pounding hand-clapping score (by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell) that echoes in my heart and in my mind and in my soul.
This is a terrific cast, led by Liza Jaine (as Alice) who convinces as both a naïve sixteen-year old and a hardened-by-tragedy 37-year old. As Jimmy Ray Dobbs, James Allen McCune does equally compelling double-duty. Area favorite Lowrey Brown brings to Mayor Dobbs the sort of soul-less devotion to wealth and cold control of family that is quintessentially southern. In the 1945 time line, Claudio Pestana and Meaghan Paetkau create the comic relief, Alice’s Asheville Southern Journal co-workers, And Sarah Joyce Hack is delightful as Billy’s friend Margo.
Stephanie Polhemus has designed a beautiful set, a skeletal cyc-backed structure that is equally at home as a poor town, a city office, and a wealthy home. If some of the other tech and direction is bit off – light cues that keep soloists dark, shaky follow spots that let their targets walk out of the light, shadows in areas (and moments) that would be happier without them, mismatched microphone and sound levels, a bluegrass band without a banjo – none of this is fatal to the pleasure to be derived from these stories, these songs, these characters, this production.
Twentieth Century Southern Literature is drenched in the forces and trends that bind families and lovers and homes even as Fate tears them all apart. It acknowledges the darkness that can erupt in the hearts of those who love too well, or not well enough. It embraces coincidence and plot reversal with not a little relish. And Bright Star is firmly in that tradition, with a memorable score that serves to enhance it all.
It all comes down in a breathtaking finale, as Ms. Jaine rips her heart out singing “At Long Last.” It is a moment she has waited for 21 years to experience, a moment she has earned, and, for us, a moment that is rapturously divine.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #GETBrightStar)