Sing-Driven Thing: A tuneful evening from Mustard Seed Theatre

Nov 5, 2008 at 4:00 am

Somewhere between Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas and the hardscrabble Appalachian folk of Will Oldham exists the world of Smoke on the Mountain. Better to describe it that way, because if you call it a "gospel musical full of witnessing and down-home faith," people like me (not a Christian, not a fan of gospel, not a fan of witnessing) will drag their feet or stay away in droves. And that would be a shame, because a gift like Smoke on the Mountain is not something to pooh-pooh.

It's strange how we label things for our own comfort level; perhaps that's the great lesson of Smoke on the Mountain. Connie Ray and Alan Bailey's loving homage to rural life is thin on plot but long on memorable moments and crackling performances — and somewhere in those moments you find yourself changing your perception of these characters and what these songs mean.

The story is nothing more than this: The Sanders Family Singers show up at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church to perform on a hot night in 1938 at the request of slightly progressive Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Christopher Hickey). The old ladies of the church reluctantly allow the performance, feeling that "a Saturday-night sing" should never take place in a church, even if it's the sort of gospel/praise show the Sanders have in mind.

Director Deanna Jent has assembled a very fine cast of comic actors who can sing and play instruments. On any stage in any bar in town, you'd pay to see this cast just do the songs — they're that good. Deborah Sharn and Christopher Limber play Ma and Pa Sanders (respectively), and their voices complement one another with a tenderness that is easy to take for granted. As the twins Dennis and Denise, Dylan Duke and Jennifer M. Theby bring a competitive sibling edge, as well as some excellent mandolin-picking from Duke. He also delivers a solid testimonial that veers from hesitant to rapturous to hilarious, a young man who's gifted with spiritual fervor but not so much self-confidence.

And then there's sister June. Unable to sing, June (Colleen Backer) signs the lyrics for the benefit of the deaf audience members. There are none, of course, but that doesn't dim her ardor for her responsibilities; the fact that her signs are of her own device, graphic and uproarious in their blatant falsity, consistently generates the largest laughs of the evening. Backer's "I'm here for my family" smile and serious devotion to her "art" is impeccable.

While many of the songs are comic in nature ("Christian Cowboys," and the glorious "Blood Medley," for example), it falls to Uncle Stanley (Tim Schall) to plumb the heart of this Mustard Seed Theatre production. An ex-con back in the family after a long absence, Stanley has doubts about his ability to "stick it out" as a Christian and as part of the family. Schall's performance of "Everyone Home but Me" is plaintive, wounded, lonely and still hopeful. It's more than his singing; Schall's stubbornly pursed mouth, his downcast eyes that lift slowly skyward as he reaches the end, create a full portrait of a man unsure of himself but willing to keep going.

That's the subtle persistence of Smoke on the Mountain. You may go reluctantly, you may doubt you'll enjoy it, but once Burl and Vera lead their family into the first song, you'll be glad you stuck it out.