By Manning Harris
T.S. Eliot may have called April the cruelest month, but it’s bringing some excellent theatre to Atlanta.
While “Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet” is on the boards at Actor’s Express, and John Patrick Shanley’s “Storefront Church,” opening this weekend at Theatrical Outfit, looks promising, Alliance Theatre’s “Edward Foote” is currently riveting audiences on the Hertz Stage through April 19.
This “world premiere noir,” as the Alliance calls it, is an Appalachian folk story, a murder mystery, and an Oedipal nightmare, written by Atlanta playwright Phillip DePoy, who wryly calls it “a twisted take on the Oedipus story, set in Appalachia during the Depression. So you can bet it’s a happy little play. Plus there’s music.”
In this Southern Gothic tale, during thunder and lighning, a stranger comes to town. Times are hard and people are suspicious of everybody, although a cursory politeness prevails—at first.
The stranger calls himself Ray Earl (Steve Coulter), but he looks a bit like the ne’er-do-well drunken Edward Foote, who disappeared some years ago. He is taken in for the night by Preacher Reece (Jeremy Aggers), who’s about to marry the young Nigella (Ann Marie Giddeon), with whom he’s living—separate bedrooms please; he’s a preacher—until their wedding tomorrow.
There are neighbors, and they’re all involved in the church. Mr. and Mrs. Nevins (Lowrey Brown and Bethany Anne Lind), Ann and Barlow (Hayley Platt and Trevor Winfield Goble), and townspeople/musicians, played by Jeannette and Scott E. DePoy.
Ray Earl has some ministerial credentials, so oddly enough, Preacher Reece wants Ray to “say the words” at the wedding. Ray agrees, but with misgivings: He’s spent a sleepless night and announces, “I have a bad feeling about this wedding!” or something like that. His bit of wariness doesn’t go over well with Reese and Nigella, and identity suspicions, we’ll call them, begin to arise for everybody.
But there’s music! That Sacred Harp shape-note music that prevailed for years in the South, can burst in at any moment; and this cast can sing.
But the music doesn’t comfort; in fact, you can feel the tension start to rise. Hysterical religiosity blends with the specter of violence, and you just know bloodshed is imminent.
One of the triumphs of this superb small cast, all Atlanta actors, is that they all have a look of incipient madness in their eyes. The genesis of this play was a college trip playwright DePoy took years ago to a church in the North Georgia mountains “where he witnessed a Pentecostal service with snake handling, people speaking in tongues and screaming,” reports Julie Bookman in the program.
I think of D.H. Lawrence’s quote: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
There’s not a wasted moment or gesture in this 90-minute, tightly directed play. Chris Coleman, former artistic director and co-founder of Actor’s Express, now based in Portland, Oregon, returns at the top of his form. The set (Tony Cisek), costumes (Sydney Roberts), lighting (Seth Reiser) and sound (Clay Benning) are all masterpieces of spareness and simplicity.
The acting, particularly Aggers, Coulter, Gideon, and Lind, is all rock solid and sharp as a knife.
Alliance artistic director Susan Booth has a knack for putting the right talent together; she’s certainly done it here. There’s no reason to miss “Edward Foote”; but it doesn’t run long and it may sell out. It’s the fastest 90 minutes you’ll spend in a theatre this year.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.