Little sparrow

“I’m very prejudiced, but I think Fair and Tender Ladies is Lee Smith’s masterpiece.”

— Actress Quinn Hawkesworth

“I am a girl 12 years old very pretty I have very long hair and eight brothers and sisters and my Mother and my Father, he is ill. We live on a farm on the Sugar Fork of Home Creek on Blue Star Mountain the clostest town is Majestic, Virginia …

“I want to be a famous writter when I grow up, I will write of Love.”

Cherished North Carolina novelist Lee Smith created this early 20th-century Appalachian heroine in her 1988 novel Fair and Tender Ladies. Ivy Rowe, the girl with the long “yaller-red hair,” writes her endless letters in the same voice in which she speaks, in intoxicating imagery that flows on natural rhythms.

But when Quinn Hawkesworth’s librarian handed her Smith’s book a few years ago, the Sanford, N.C.-based actress balked.

“At first, my heart sank,” admits Hawkesworth, noting that there are two kinds of books she doesn’t like: epistolary novels, and those written in dialect.

Fair and Tender Ladies, titled after a traditional mountain ballad, is both.

“But about two pages into it, I was absolutely hooked,” Hawkesworth continues. “I’m very prejudiced, but I think this is Lee Smith’s masterpiece. I closed the book and said to myself: ‘I want to [play] this woman!'”

And so, Ivy-like, she decided to write the one-woman script herself.

“The biggest challenge came down to whittling the richness of Lee’s material,” the actress says. “Lee’s writing is like music, and sometimes if you leave something out, the rhythm just gets all bollixed up.

“When Ivy’s talking about the day they take her father’s coffin up to bury him on top of the mountain, she [writes]: ‘It was the softest palest prettest morning … and this on the day we berried my daddy wich shuld of been the worstest in my life, but somehow it was not. It was not.’

“It’s that second ‘it was not,'” Hawkesworth explains, “that puts the listener inside the mind of a 12-year-old.”

After writing the play, Hawkesworth was eager to present it to Tim Morrissey, her director at Temple Theatre in Sanford. But Ladies wasn’t an easy sell.

“I’m this football kind of guy,” confesses Morrissey, who has since moved to Hendersonville. “I’m not a big fan of Southern literature, especially when it focuses on women.”

So for a long time, he avoided seeing what Hawkesworth had accomplished. But one Sunday afternoon, the cast of his then-current production bought beer and pizza and insisted the director relax long enough to watch Hawkesworth’s presentation.

As Morrissey tells it, within minutes he promised Hawkesworth they would develop the piece for Temple’s upcoming season, “no matter what it takes.” The play has since appeared in theaters across the South.

But Diana Wortham is much larger than the previous venues in which the play has been performed. It’s a welcome challenge for Todd O. Wren, lighting designer for Highland Repertory Theatre, which will present the play locally.

“The script has always been [framed around] the dawning of a day, the progression, and the waning of a day,” explains Wren. “So I want to convey that sense of movement throughout the show.”

The moon, for instance, takes on mystical symbolism throughout Ivy’s life, and the lighting design must reflect that.

“I have got a scar on my wrist,” Ivy writes, “like a little moon from one time I cut it when I was cleaning a trout fish, what else?”

“She has overcome a lot of adversity and survived intact,” notes Wren. “She’s whole and understands herself. We show how the moon, the symbol of women, interacts within the cycles of her life journey — how the concept of the divine feminine plays into all this.”

All New Age mysticism aside, Fair and Tender Ladies, Hawkesworth points out, “is an Appalachian story,” and Asheville “is still mountain territory — I’d like newcomers to the region to understand the integrity of the people here.”

[Freelance writer Marcianne Miller is a regular contributor to Xpress.]

Highland Repertory Theatre and Neighborhood Housing Services of Asheville present Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies, adapted and performed by Quinn Hawkesworth. The show runs at 8 p.m. at Diana Wortham Theatre from Thursday, March 4 through Saturday, March 6, and also from Thursday, March 11 through Saturday, March 13. Admission is $20/adults, $18/seniors, students and groups of 10 or more, $10/children under 12. Call 257-4530 for tickets or more information.

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