Review of Tradin’ Paint at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre

SART’s devotion to new plays is unusual, if not unprecedented, for a summer theatre. Though its 36th season, unlike most of its predecessors, did not include a world premiere, it ended with something playwrights find as valuable if not more so: a third professional production.

Tradin’ Paint was written by Catherine Bush, the playwright-in-residence at The Barter Theatre, where a reading of Tradin’ Paint won the 2006 Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights. A 2007 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts supported further development and the first full staging of the script in 2008. Last year, it played Marietta’s Theatre in the Square, and now it’s been well-mounted by SART and its artistic director, Bill Gregg.

The play’s billing as “a comedy about NASCAR” isn’t quite right. The Bristol Speedway serves as a major setting, each character is involved if not obsessed with stock-car racing, and maintaining and racing cars figures prominently in the plot, but Tradin’ Paint is not about NASCAR. It’s about ill-educated, underemployed, troubled individuals and, in the end, self-actualization. Nevertheless, yes, it’s a comedy—a whimsical comedy at that.

“Dale Earnhardt is dead,” the play begins, and that’s about as deep as the NASCAR references get. (To the extent that you might need information about NASCAR racing in order to understand the proceedings, it’s helpfully provided, in one of many speeches addressed directly to the audience, by a Flagman, Michael Mattison, who appealingly performs several small roles.) The first fan we see is unlike any we might imagine: Halley Smoot (Kristopher Geddie), a gay black English teacher so in love with the sport he actually left the big city, and took a job at the community college in his small hometown, because of it.

Smoot proves a minor player, though. Tradin’ Paint (the term for cars bumping up against each other) really belongs to Darla Frye (Amanda Ladd, who delightfully embodies a character who describes herself, repeatedly, as “fraught with deep-seated insecurities”). An auto-parts store clerk with a remarkable memory for product names and numbers, Darla freely admits to self-esteem issues rooted in an alcoholic mother and a father who left for good when Darla was quite young. Because she has no expectations for herself, Darla has allowed herself to become involved in an abusive relationship with the local dogcatcher, Coty Webb (Chris Allison in a remarkable performance so different from his recent appearance in Tuesdays with Morrie, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor). Coty’s interest in Darla is twofold: the fried chicken she supplies (so he can toss the bones, ritualistically, onto the racetrack), and her demure acceptance, which bolsters this self-deceiving blowhard’s opinion of himself.

Coty’s got a lot of problems, not least of which is the existence of Lucky Tibbs (Rebecca Phippard), the pit boss for her driver husband, Skeeter Jett (Z. Joseph Guice). Bad enough that Lucky has violated what Coty sees as the manly traditions of NASCAR;  it’s Lucky who begins Darla’s transformation by happening upon her stranded by a flat tire, which Lucky teaches her to fix. The realization that she can learn encourages Darla to pursue her high school equivalency diploma (Smoot is one of her teachers). After a most unfortunate racing accident injures Darla nearly fatally, Lucky offers her a job in an auto repair shop.

With Lucky as the model of an independent woman, and with Lucky and Skeeter demonstrating what a healthy relationship might be like, Darla casts Coty aside. This leads to Coty’s realization of what he’s lost and, also under Lucky’s tutelage, his own transformation.

If that all sounds a touch schematic, it is. Bush, a prolific playwright, has frequently written for children, and that’s evident here, both in the way the play is constructed and in its uplifting, lesson-imparting denouement. (Even the way races are staged—with three drivers in fire suits and helmets clutching steering wheels and miming their laps—feels a little like Saturday morning cartoons.) What saves Tradin’ Paint from being too precious for words is sharp, witty dialogue and, in the case of the central characters, careful observation. (The other roles, alas, are more devices than people.)

The play is much-enhanced by strong performances, an engaging physical production, and sure-handed direction. SART ends its season on a genial, diverting note, its dedication to new works encouragingly intact. (Tradin’ Paint runs through Sunday, Aug. 22. Remaining shows are Aug. 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Aug.15, 18, 19 and 22 at 2:30 p.m. $18. 689-1239 for tickets.)

Tradin’ Paint, by Catherine Bush. Directed by Bill Gregg. Set Design: Richard Seagle. Lighting Design: Robert C. Berls. Costume Design: Deborah Austin. Sound Design: Jeffrey Silverman. Stage Manager: Joan Childress Wilkerson.

With Kristopher Geddie (Halley Smoot), Amanda Ladd (Darla Frye), Chris Allison (Coty Webb), Rebecca Phippard (Lucky Tibbs), Z. Joseph Guice (Skeeter Jett), Mitchell Hilburn (Pierce Garbarino), Josh Miller (Tucker Forbush), Michael Mattison (Flagman, Jack, The Boss), J.J. McCarson (Football Player).

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