`Heathen Valley' is more debate than drama

Review: Story of a missionary in the backwoods South suffers from too much religious argument.

May 06, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Romulus Linney's 1987 play, "Heathen Valley," started out as a novel, and maybe it's a better novel than it is a play. Though the theatrical version has been beautifully staged at Everyman Theatre, it doesn't compensate for a script that largely boils down to a theological debate.

Linney loosely based "Heathen Valley" on a real event in rural North Carolina, where he spent part of his childhood. The action is narrated by a character named Billy -- affectingly played by Jefferson A. Russell as both a child and an adult. It focuses on a mid-19th century Episcopal bishop who decides to bring God to a community of "violent, carnal and heathen" North Carolina mountain folk, as he calls them.

The play narrows the community down to three representative members -- Harlan (John Benoit), a wild man who has committed murder just before we meet him; Cora (Jacqueline Underwood), the combative mother of Harlan's infant daughter; and Juba (Vivienne Shub), the local midwife, and the only one of the three who possesses any common sense.

Although the bishop hopes to turn these Godless souls into God-fearing citizens, he doesn't actually spend much time with them. Instead, he dubs his janitor a deacon, and leaves the mountains to spread the word of the good deeds he has initiated.

Starns, the deacon, is the play's most intriguing character. A native of these mountains and an ex-con, he initially has no use for religion. And even after his views change, they have a decidedly practical bent. Kyle Prue's earnest portrayal leaves no question of Starns' dedication.

"Poor folks have poor ways" is Starns' oft-repeated refrain. (Everyone in the play seems to have a favorite refrain, which gives the dialogue a poetic feel). If the Episcopal Church can bring these poor folks a school and medical care, if it can help them farm the land and lead productive, happy lives, then Starns is all for it.

But he also has enough mountain upbringing to recognize that a degree of compromise is necessary to bring religion to people who confuse it with superstition. Compromise, however, is not in the bishop's vocabulary.

The son of atheists, the bishop becomes more rigid as the play continues. He has worked his way up to Episcopalianism through a series of less strict denominations. By the time the play ends, he has converted to Catholicism, leaving Starns and his flock not only confused, but without the church support that has been crucial to all they've achieved.

The bishop's religious debates with Starns are the crux of the play. Does God want man to be happy on Earth, or only in heaven? Are sacrifice and asceticism the only spiritual path, or can fulfillment and peace also be spiritual? And what is the difference between faith and superstition?

Thought-provoking as the questions may be, they are surprisingly undramatic in Linney's play. Part of the problem is the unsympathetic nature of the bishop, an impression Doug Brown's performance does little to alleviate, particularly since he portrays him more as a selfish, lost soul than as a man of intense faith. The result is a debate essentially devoid of genuine conflict.

Director Vincent M. Lancisi, his designers (especially Jay A. Herzog, who's responsible for the appropriately murky lighting) and fight choreographer Lewis Shaw all do a good job setting the scene, but the outcome seems fairly predictable. From the opening lines, nothing about this show suggests "happily ever after." In that sense, at least, it doesn't disappoint.

`Heathen Valley'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2: 30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 23

Tickets: $12-$15

Call: 410-752-2208

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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