Director Jack Lindsay says that playwright Waylon Wood "has a lot of insight to human nature." To that, Wood says, "The characters are wise, but I don't know about me. I guess I was raised by some wise people and they figure into it."
Wood's play, Chipola, runs through most of April at Asheville Community Theatre, and though it's set in Florida, is a very local production. Wood, who has called Asheville home since 2004, notes that "we have so much local talent: a lot of good playwrights and actors in town. Showing new work and new talent keeps the theater community fresh."
Chipola has only been produced a handful of times, and this will be its North Carolina premiere — mainly due to the fact that it's spent a lot of time languishing in a drawer since Wood wrote it in 1991 as an undergrad. When the ACT play reading committee was looking for material for this season, Wood decided 2010 was "good timing. I wanted to see how well Chipola has aged."
Despite the passing of time, those involved seem to agree that the play works two decades later — though Wood, who rewrote Chipola nine times since it was his first full-length play, says "I'm really waiting for an audience to see it. I don't think my attitude has changed that much toward the play and the characters. They sort of have a life of their own without me."
So, it was the right time revisit Chipola, and the low-profile production was a good fit for ACT's black box theater, 35below, known for edgier, adult-themed experimental works
Says Wood, "It can be done with very little fuss and muss." The small, den-like 35below is also conducive to the nighttime scenery of the show. Set along a river on the Florida panhandle, the play's characters find themselves without electricity following a July storm. "When something happens — a catastrophe — priorities shift," explains Lindsay. "We all come together." So Chipola finds its characters: Matriarch Wanna June Duke (played by Melissa Boyd), her adult children Roy Boy (David Ely), June (Ashley Millett) and Dot (Cary Nichols), Dot's husband Jimmy (Dan Clancy) and the elderly neighbor Miss Bailey (Marlene Earp), all gathered in Wanna's front yard.
According to Lindsay, the river (which lends its name to Wood's story) serves as not just location, but metaphor. Says press for the show, "Like the river for which it is named, this play meanders, revealing a family's history and the skeletons in their closets that could finally tear them apart."
"Lives are turbulent at times. Sometimes deep, sometimes shallow," the director explains. (And he should have a good sense for translating the conceptual to the stage: Lindsay is also a set designer, responsible for the likes of local productions of Beauty and the Beast and Enchanted April.)
The narrative takes some cues from nature, "sometimes slow and introspective, but there are moments when it's very high pitched," says Lindsay. "The more we get into it and flesh out the characters, the more interesting they become."
Wood says that much of Chipola centers around Roy Boy, "an ex-football player who has basically run away from home. His family is trying to get him to settle down," says the writer. "He makes a journey through the play — a great deal of healing goes on."
While emotion and human condition are integral to Chipola, Lindsay points out that "Waylon leaves a lot of room for interpretation. He's not rigid in terms of a character being a specific way."
Says Wood, "I don't write a lot of stage direction. I started out as an actor and I still act. I rebel against stage direction. A play is a blueprint in a way." He says that, after a point, the playwright has to let go of his creation or "you will stay up late at night and pace. If you read a play, it doesn't really stand up. If you do a play, that's when it gets exciting."
Though Chipola is based among the landscapes and people of Florida (where Wood spent his childhood), there are universal themes: Family, secrets and coming together in a time of need. And, says the playwright, there are personal musings. He (like Roy Boy) did a lot of traveling following college, whereas he believes most Americans "are really attached to place."
But Wood now feels an attachment to Asheville, and says that the idea of a next production — perhaps one specific to his current home — is a possibility. "The actors inspire me to write a next play," he says. "We have some of the top actors in town in this play. I go, 'What if I wrote a play for them?'"
what: N.C. Premiere of play by local playwright Waylon Wood
when: Thursday, April 1 through Saturday, April 24 (Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $15 adults/$10 students. http://www.ashevilletheatre.org or 254-1320)
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What a little moonlight can do: A power outage brings a family together in Chipola. Photo by Jonathan Welch.