Kathy Kahn wrote a book – HillBilly Women – based on a series of interviews of Appalachian women from the late 1970’s where they recounted their stories of living in poverty, living with coalminers, living off the land, dealing with abuse and loveless marriages, working in factories and the pluses and minuses of union labor all the while keeping their dignity and aspirations intact. Really interesting stuff. Or so I thought.
Elizabeth Stearns has adapted these stories for the stage, added some songs with some nice piano, guitar and fiddle accompaniment along with a modern day narrator called “Witness” and immediately gets us off on the wrong track by having the smart and stylish Donna Hanover declare she is Dolly Parton which she immediately corrects and introduces herself as herself.
Director Sondra Lee takes over from there with not much to offer in the staging department – as each of the six women on a bare stage with an enlarged map of Appalachia hanging upstage above their heads tell of their tales of woe. And it is upstage that Ms. Lee – much too often – has many of her actors speaking. Sometimes commiserating with each other, sometimes near tears and sometimes trying to sing.
There is Jewel (raspy voiced Alicia Meer) and her rebellious daughter Della (Mickey Sumner). Siddy, a sitter and a drinker (Evangeline Johns). Denise (Mimi Turque) the faithful one who does a nice job with “Amazing Grace”. Ada (Annette Hunt) wrinkled but strong – full of joyous energy and some humorous tales. Then there is Sharlene (a wondrous Lauren Fox) – pale, young and downtrodden who engages our attention with bare faced honesty and a depth of feeling as she sings “Grandpa” and “Mama He’s Crazy” that just about breaks your heart.
Donna Hanover as “Witness” appears all over the stage and in the front rows – popping in and out like Waldo interjecting random distracting thoughts and commenting on the stories just to let us know that not much has changed for these women who despite all that they have gone through remain strong and enjoying the moniker of Hillbilly thrust upon them.
The show is a little bit documentary, a little bit Spoon River Anthology and a little bit repetitious without enough conflict to sustain interest. The fact that there are some fine singers and some not so fine doesn’t help their cause. Understudy Katy Frame is seated on the side with the small combo and her beautiful voice can be heard giving her fellow gals some needed support.
“Hillbilly Women” is like as assortment of chocolates in a Whitman Sampler – some are more delicious than others but all in all it’s a treat seeing women of a certain age offered interesting roles to play even though the production is not totally satisfying.
Through January 30th at Arclight Theatre 152 West 71 Street. Tickets $18.00
www.thebleecker.com Photo: Steve Friedman
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