Lost souls

Don't ask why, but about two years ago I found myself on a tour of a hospital located at the base of the Appalachian mountains. The hospital's administrator, a Catholic nun, was explaining some of the unique pathologies seen at the facility, most of them derived from the effects of inbreeding and the consumption of "white lightning."

That's right, "Kissin' Cousins" is more than a third-rate Elvis tune in moonshine country--it's a wedding march. Believe it or not, folks up in the hollows still eat possum pie and still take pot shots at "revenuers." As far as Appalachia is concerned, The Beverly Hillbillies isn't a TV show, it's a documentary.

Speaking of Jed, Granny, and the crew, their theatrical antecedents are on display in the 11th Street Theatre Project production of Heathen Valley, an oldie but moldy play by Romulus Linney. It's a deadly earnest look at the struggle between an Episcopal bishop and his deacon protege for the souls of some unwashed Appalachian types who live in the "valley that forgot God." As a Reagan speech writer once said about the battle among staff members for the former president's heart and mind, "Not since World War I was so much blood and energy expended over such barren ground."

These mountaineers don't need an evangelist, they need Jane Goodall. In a way, they have her, in the form of the observant narrator, Billy. Billy is an orphan boy bit by the poetry bug who adopts the people of Heathen Valley as his mother and father. He chronicles his experiences with this white-trash tribe in a elegiac, hyperpoetic tone that soon becomes cloying. ("Faint were the fiddles. Hardly heard were the dancing gee.")

The bishop, like Lady Macbeth, can't wash himself clean. He's thirsting for a spiritual purity unattainable in this world, and he expects his flock to follow suit. The deacon, Starns, is a more practical missionary. He meets his constituents halfway and deftly manages to get them to assimilate Christian beliefs into their own fetishistic mountain code. He's on the verge of convincing them to give up incest and infanticide when the bishop pulls the rug out from under him by traipsing off to Rome to become a Catholic. Without the support and authority of the Episcopal Church, Starns becomes an evangelical straw man, and the people of Heathen Valley go back to fussin', fightin', and fornicatin'.

The idea of missionaries pushing their faith without any real understanding or sympathy for the people to whom they are proselytizing is a dramatically potent one. (See Somerset Maugham or Michener.) It's not a particularly relevant theme, however, especially in Dallas, where the local evangelists are blinded not so much by a chauvinistic religious fervor as by a mad dash for cash.

Still, who needs relevance if a script has some humor or pathos in it? Unfortunately, Heathen Valley has neither. It's a didactic clunker in which the characters mouth deadpan dialogue right out of a Naked Gun film, but without the double entendres or silliness. Why independent production companies like the 11th Street Theatre Project, which are generally hurting for an audience, choose dead-on-arrival plays like this one is beyond me.

The performances are adequate for the most part, given the material. Virginia Thompson as the gnarled midwife Juba certainly looks the part, right down to her weather-beaten hands. (Whatever she's been soaking in, it's not Palmolive.) Though she brings a good deal of menace and sly intelligence to the role, she also muffs a line or two, which is inexcusable.

Dan Buehler tackles the thankless role of the impossibly hidebound bishop in the heroic manner of a soldier falling on a hand grenade. There's no stepping back from this part: You just have to throw yourself into it, and Buehler does, straight to the ground when the script very plausibly calls for the bishop to flagellate himself with the rope of his cassock.

Kevin Grammer and Laurie Marsh Freelove as a fractious pair of star-crossed lovers make like Elly May and Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, though the scrapes they get into have more to do with murder and incest than they do with whether or not a "cement pond" is a fit place for washing critters. Grammer, in a switch from the urbane con man he played in the 11th Street production of Mamet's The Shawl, does a creditable job of creating sympathy for a backwoods version of Frankenstein's monster. Freelove, on the other hand, spends most of her time in rugby-scrum crouch with her teeth exposed like a hungry beaver.

Jeff Bush, as the deacon, fares better in a nicely shaded performance that never loses its dignity, even during the Sturm und Drang of the second act. While other characters are tossing babies off cliffs or lolling on the ground in ecstasies of religious masochism, Bush is quietly emoting both pain and understanding. Bush almost breaks through the wall of earnestness separating the play from its audience when his character falls into the coils of his final ironic fate.

The nicest touch in this production, however, is provided by Dan and Julia Gibson, folk musicians who appear both as a duo and as part of the Old Crusty Minstrels, a local coffeehouse favorite. Their live banjo and autoharp playing creates an authentic mountain mood that is never fully realized by the play itself. Still, the extra dimension of live music does wonders for just about any theatrical production.

Director Patti Harsha Arnold does the best she can with the limited technical assets provided by the space at St. Matthew's Episcopal Theater. The play is executed pretty much exactly as it was written, but like a couple having a domestic quarrel, is best avoided altogether.

It's to be hoped that in the future the 11th Street Theatre Project and all other local theaters great and small will choose plays wisely, produce them well, and enjoy all the success and accolades to which they aspire, forever and ever, amen.

Heathen Valley runs through June 29. Call 522-


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