Abiding Place  
by Phillip Lewis - Presented by Brevard Little Theatre
Morrison Playhouse , Paul Porter Center for the Performing Arts , Brevard College

by Jim Cavener (theatrical reviewer for the Asheville Citizen-Times)

The most recent theater piece mounted in Brevard College's Morrison
Playhouse was Stephen Sondheim's complex and rewarding musical offering,
"Into the Woods."   Brevard Little Theatre's current "Abiding Place" seems, on
the surface, to have very little in common with its predecessor, until you think
about it a bit.  While the former is a variant on the Brothers Grimm's various fairy
tales, set in a mythological medieval middle-European land, the latter is a
mid-19th century family saga, in nearby lowland South Carolina.  "Abiding
Place" is only a generation or two away away, while "Into the Woods" takes
place in a far-away place, long, long ago and "Once Upon a Time."

Yet, in a surprising manner, the overall message of both otherwise dissimilar
shows is quite similar: Bad things happen to good people, the nice guys don't
always win, and virtue may have to be its own reward, while there is no "happily
ever-after" denouement to create a feel-good experience.  No one will leave
either show all settled and serene.  No way.

"Abiding Place" is one part Greek tragedy, one part Morality Play, coupled with
a touch of "Hamlet" and family conflict of a more recent vintage.  Novice
playwright Phillip Lewis knows of what he speaks when he deals with powerful
moral issues.  He spent three years in protestant theological education before
becoming disillusioned and deciding that the church was not what it was
cracked up to be.  He's made a career for himself in and around Raleigh, but
used his spare time and extra energy to craft this fine theatrical vehicle of
conflict and stress, poignancy and pathos.

Opening night of this powerful and well-written story was a good performance of
a new play, never seen by an audience before and staged in an unfamiliar
performance area, There were some rough spots, the scene transitions were
numerous and sometimes slow, and a few lines were lost or blown.  But all this
will remedy itself in the hands of such fine talent and able direction.  The cast is
competent, confident and strong, and director Gene O'Hare knows his way
around the complexities of mounting a stage production, whether new or
venerable.

"Abiding Place" is this year's winner of the full-length-play category in BLT's
annual new-play  competition, and is devoid of most of the  pratfalls so often
found in the work of first-time playwrights. The transitions are smooth and
convincing, the dialogue is motivated and purposeful, and the whole story rings
true.  As well it should: "Abiding Place" is based on actual events in the
experience of the author's ancestors, handed down through the generations.  At
three hours, however, it is too long and will have to be trimmed and tightened if
it is to have repeated productions and continued appreciation by future
audiences.

This old-timey, rural South Carolina story is made up of sixteen scenes in two
acts, and the necessity for frequent scene changes gives the script a cinematic
sense, which is difficult for the stage. Each scene is wrapped up with tidy
dialogue, but there are simply too many of them and the whole will be
strengthened by fewer and better-flowing scenes.  The transitions were well
lubricated by sad ballads rendered by Ray Bennie on guitar, playing and singing
spirituals, southern ballads, Joan Baez favorites and nostalgic tunes from a
range of sources.  It's a pity that the talented Bennie is not attributed in the
program.

Sound and lights by Betsy Lemon, Steve Hartington and Joseph Kaup were
effective, with a huge autumn moon projection being a visual highlight during an
especially poignant scene.  The props were simple and rustic, reflecting the
time and place.  One particularly effective prop is a homemade coffin which
figures into the painful struggle of family member vs. family member, caught up
in a no-win situation, and with no easy resolution of the disturbing quandry
created by playwright Lewis.

While the over-all temper of the plot is full of pathos, there is simple and homey
humor, fitting the time and place.  The interaction of the core family members is
laced with affectionate fun, even as tragedy descends on them from all sides.  
The honorable and self-defeating father, Carver Edge, is finely rendered by Dan
Clancy, whose roles at 35below and the Asheville Community Theatre have
ranged widely enough to convince any skeptic that he can carry a variety of
work.  Carver's wife, Alma, is even more impressive as played by Paula
Johnson.  Her portrayal of a lovely, but strong and principled, wife and mother is
most moving.  Watching this woman perform is a joy.

Their only child, Nathaniel, whose fate is at the center of the whole struggle, is
winsomely portrayed by Hawk D'Onofrio, a 17-year-old Brevard High student
who will be in NYC next year, pursuing theater as well as liberal arts studies.  
His capable interpretation of this role is compelling and convincing.  Their
neighbor, Samantha, is deftly presented by Daisy Talley, while the sheriff is
quite well-played by Jerry Coggins, known for his work at Montford Park
Players, ACT and Hendersonville Little Theater.

The dark side of life in this rural area of our neighboring state in that
19th-Century era is ably revealed by Darien Aiken as Preacher Gore, who
seems to foretell the emergence of such people as Pat Robertson and Jerry
Falwell, some 150 years later.  Their selective use of Christian scripture is so
pathetic as to have become material for satire by late-night TV comedians.  Bob
Baldridge, as scheming lawyer Gaston Thrailkill, becomes a
Shakespeare-quoting charlatan.  Bob is one of the area's consummate actors
for playing crotchety and churlish codgers, among other character roles, and is
best known for his work at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre.

The juiciest role of the evening is that of Broadus Collins, evil personified, and
played with great conviction by Joe Narsavage.  His villainous portrayal almost
borders on melodrama, but never goes over the line.  This is fine character
development, and both Narsavage and O'Hare deserve commendation for their
interpretation of Lewis' finely-wrought bad guy.  In a lesser role, Ed Daigle is an
able Judge Formyduval -- doing his job with honor, as does the sheriff -- thus
leading to a major tragedy, unavoidable as long as everyone merely "does their
best," while letting legalism rule.

While it is difficult to make such an allegation -- even had I seen all the shows
by BLT in recent decades -- this one, "Abiding Place," may well be the most
effective piece of theater presented by BLT in a VERY long time.
                        
Jim Cavener writes on theater for The Asheville Citizen-Times