It may not have been the best idea to open with the line, “Jackson, that faggot was sucking you off.” The audience at the N.C. Stage‘s Catalyst Series production of Concord, Virgina — the majority well beyond retirement age — was visibly (yes, even in the darkened theater) taken aback.
That said, the one-man show, based on the book Concord, Virginia: A Southern Town in Eleven Stories, was a well-played and often gripping performance. Acted by the author, Peter Neofotis, Concord presents a collection of intertwined short stories about small-town Virginia. Neofotis manages to both narrate the tales (at this show he performed two stories from the 11-story collection) as well as performing the town’s residents as they speak their minds. Characters range from 22 year-old golden boy Jackson McCormick (who, in the first act, is in court accusing Simon Donald, the gay town flower gardener, of taking advantage of Jackson while Jackson was passed out drunk) to Elise MacJenkins (who, according to the book, was “older than Melthusaleh, the 150-foot-tall black walnut tree that stood, gnarled and grand, in her cabin’s front yard”). Neofotis does all the voices, though his performance style is less about impersonations and more about relaying a story — almost like a chatty uncle who grabs the spotlight at a family reunion.
And that’s part of the charm of Concord. These are stories, rather than a script. And while Neofotis does take measures to convey drama and humor (some surprisingly balletic arm gestures, sitting and standing to switch quickly between characters, the mostly successful transition from a high-falutin’ Southern drawl to the more backwoods twang of a federal police officer), ultimately the production comes down to some polished, carefully-crafted yarn-spinning.
That being the case, Concord stands on its own as a book. In fact, I highly recommend it. From the first sentence, Neofotis reveals himself as a talented writer, his work walking the line between charming day-in-the-life anecdotes (think: Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days) and something more esoteric (Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology). Within Concord, people relate to each other and to the environment. They are quirky, imperfect, racist and judgmental. They do bad things, and sometimes they right those wrongs, but the stories are less about redemption than they are about the human condition.
What’s interesting is that Neofotis, who grew up in Lexington, Va., doesn’t seem old enough to have that kind of insight. Not yet 30, the author reportedly got his literary start as a student at Columbia University — that was, until a professor dashed his confidence. On to other things, Neofotis worked for the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies while contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Which won the Nobel Peace Prize. That was Neofotis’ day job: by night he wrote Concord (which, natch, was recently named winner of Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella) and then — like completing and publishing a book wasn’t enough — memorized all the stories and started performing them in New York theaters.
Before watching the show, I read most of the book. Since Neofotis performs different sections at different times, it’s luck of the draw. I was familiar with one story and not the other — happily, it didn’t matter. Read the book before attending if you want a primer (see info below about the author’s upcoming book signing at Malaprop’s); don’t if you like surprises. Both experiences are equally enjoyable.
After the first act completed, a few members of the audience made a beeline for the exit, but those who remained were treated to a very different second act. (Not, it’s worth noting, that the first act was in any way bad or offensive beyond some adult language and sexual content. Several interesting characters were introduced, including the crazy albino botanist Mary Anne Randolph, flamboyant Simon and heroic returning Vietnam War vet James. And the surprise ending was well worth the uncomfortable beginning.) Act two, the book’s final story, was of how the town matriarch Elise MacJenkins attempted to halt a dam-building project with her home-brewed moonshine. Moonshine and the river both serve as metaphor for the progress of life: It’s poignant, yet Neofotis finds room for humor as well.
“No ma’am, I don’t drink water,” the cop tells Elise at one point. “Fish f*ck in it.”
Concord, Virginia runs Thursday-Saturday through August 29 at NC Stage. 7:30 p.m. $12 in advance, $15 at the door.
Peter Neofotis will read from and sign copies of Concord, Virginia: A Southern Town in Eleven Stories at Malaprop’s on Wednesday, August 26. 7 p.m., free.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter