The old adage “don’t make promises you can’t keep” resonates throughout the profession premiere of Promises (the play was staged as a student production at Appalachian State University in 2013). It is the 65th such premiere in Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s 40 years.
Written by Appalachian State professor Joel Williams and directed by Screen Artists Co-op’s Jon Menick, Promises is a gripping, well-crafted tale of love, loss, betrayal, reconciliation and acceptance, set around a cemetery near Bryson City. There, entire towns were consumed by Lake Fontana and the Tennessee Valley Authority flooding that helped to modernize the region.
Set alternately in 2014 and the 1940s, Promises finds a set-in-his-ways Jospeh on a journey to discover the truth of his birth. Promises made by his father set into motion a chain of events that have remained secret for nearly 70 years. Andrew Trickle plays the deeply Appalachian Joseph with such conviction that you would never guess Trickle is actually a native of England.
In intertwined flashbacks, we also follow the journey of Joseph’s father, Jacob. Duty McKeelan’s Jacob is a man of deep principles and sincerity who is tested by the challenges of a rapidly changing world. McKeelan is an appealing actor, and the audience feels every ounce of his pain as he loses his true love, Leah, when she leaves for Asheville. Emerald Robinson gives a moving turn as the lost love who will forever haunt Jacob. Jacob eventually finds love with Rachel (wonderfully played by Mara Briendel), and attempts to begin a new life amidst the changes coming to everyone’s lives in this small community.
Under Menick’s direction the play moves briskly, but the scenes that resonate the most are those that slow down and live in the moment with the characters. When Jacob makes a promise to old farmer Jenkins (sweetly rendered by Joe Narsavage) that seems innocent and sincere enough, it sets off a series of consequences that are both emotionally wrenching and shocking.
The only complaint I have is that some of the musical underscoring felt a bit too contemporary, and out of sync with a few highly-charged scenes late in the show. Beyond that, Promises is one of the best productions I’ve seen this year. The play runs through Sunday, Aug. 3. Shows are Thursdays at 2:30 and 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 2:30. $25.