The night is warm and damp; the mosquitoes are out, and so is the power. But the moon shines bright, providing illumination and stimulating lunacy. Welcome to Chipola, the Asheville Community Theatre’s thoughtful production of local writer and actor Waylon Wood’s original play. Scripted almost 20 years ago, it suffers some of the weaknesses typical of early efforts. It also has expressive strengths, real insights, wit and heart, and a splendid ensemble cast guided by Jack Lindsay, a first-time director who plainly appreciates and makes the most of the play’s riches.
The setting (excellently designed by the director; all technical aspects are superior) is the front porch and grounds of a stand-alone cabin somewhere in backwoods Florida, near a river that plays as prominent a role as the moon. Wanna (Melissa Boyd), a middle-aged widow, stands on the porch and praises the moon, paying homage to it and to the Indians she encountered when young, and whose wisdom and way of life haunt her imagination.
Soon her wayward son Roy Boy (David Ely), unexpectedly home for no clear reason, carries in elderly Miss Bailey (Marlene Earp), piggyback style. Miss Bailey is, to put it bluntly, a curmudgeon with a wandering memory, a taste for beer, a tendency to “rest” her eyes (causing others to think she’s asleep while they spill their guts), and no truck with anyone else’s ideas of how to live, including Wanna’s, whose periodic reversion to Indian talk drives Miss Bailey, and everyone else, to distraction.
Miss Bailey’s there because Wanna wanted to make sure she was all right despite the outage, and now Wanna’s daughter Dot (Cary Nichols) arrives — without her husband, Jimmy, who stayed home watching the dark TV — to check up on her mother. Shortly after, sister Jewel (Ashleigh Millett) makes a dramatic entrance, dripping wet from skinny-dipping in the river. Wanna’s an outgoing dreamer; Roy Boy and Dot bear their hurts and burdens quietly; and Jewell’s the flamboyant member of the Duke family, a woman who flaunts her sexuality so freely, one wonders early on what’s up between her and Roy Boy.
Each of these characters has an interesting viewpoint and stories to tell, frequently in well-crafted monologues to which Miss Bailey often offers a counterpoint, almost like a Greek chorus. Though tensions crackle beneath the simplest exchanges, and family secrets involving alcohol, sex, and death are hinted at, the stakes aren’t raised until Jimmy (Dan Clancy) drives up, claiming he’s been out trying to find Dot, and had even gone down to the river in search of her. Thanks to Jewel, however, everyone knows what goes on by the river…
It would be unfair to detail more, since what drama the play possesses pertains to the revelations provoked by the moon, the river and the electricity between these characters. Suffice to say that there’s a good deal of drinking that loosens lips and emotions and that, as suspected, Jewel’s had her way with men she’d have done better to leave alone. We don’t know what happens after she heads up to the old barn, loaded shotgun in hand, but we have our suspicions.
The ambiguity with which Chipola ends may or may not be a flaw; it’s usually good for a play to leave its audience with questions, but this one may not provide enough information to make guessing what occurs after the curtain particularly fruitful. One problem is the limbo in which all of these characters exist; only one — Jimmy — seems to work, so the issues that consume the Dukes and Miss Bailey float free of the mundane realities that hem in most of us.
Another is that, especially in the first act, the dramatic action is attenuated; yes, the blackout has brought these people together, which provides an occasion for them to talk, but that talk, delicious as it is, meanders as long-buried truths are slowly unearthed. To mix metaphors, this journey may be worthwhile, but for long stretches the audience can’t know why it’s along for the ride.
Fortunately, Wood’s often lyrical dialogue and his understanding of, and compassion for, his characters compensate for structural deficiencies. It helps, too, that each role is perfectly cast and rendered, and that strong acting makes up for the less-believable touches.
As Wanna, Melissa Boyd is a lost woman with a positive, party-throwing attitude that allows her to make the most of her memories and dreams. David Ely’s subtle performance as Roy Boy renders all of this former football quarterback’s frustrations palpably. Marlene Earp is both hysterical and harrowing as Miss Bailey. Cary Nichols’ Dot could have been a formulaic reading of a put-upon daughter, wife, and mother, but instead earns our concern. Dan Clancy’s creepy Jimmy gives flesh to a man who traffics in worms. And, in perhaps the play’s most difficult role, Ashleigh Millett makes of Jewel not just the trashy tramp she would have been in lesser hands, but a genuinely sexy, troubled woman starved for love.
Chipola, by Waylon Wood. Directed by Jack Lindsay. Technical direction: Jill Summers. Scenic design: Jack Lindsay. Lighting design: Jeff Neese. Costume design: Mary Olson. Sound design: Adam Cohen. Stage manager: Susan Maley. With Melissa Boyd (Wanna), David Ely (Roy Boy), Marlene Earp (Miss Bailey), Cary Nichols (Dot), Ashleigh Millett (Jewel), and Dan Clancy (Jimmy).
Now at Asheville Community Theatre’s 35Below. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. $10/$15.