Even before the end of the first scene in Flying Anvil's latest presentation, The Love Talker by Deborah Pryor, you know you're watching something really special: a beautifully constructed work that uses the natural poetry and deeply lyrical quality of the Appalachian dialect to call up a haunting, sensual, and riveting tale of madness and desire.
Set in a ramshackle cabin deep in the Clinch Mountains of Virginia, the story follows young Gowdie Blackmun (Emily Cullum) and her older sister Bun Blackmun (Carolyn Corley) as they encounter The Love Talker (JD Sizemore) a malicious spirit in the form of man seeking entry into more than just their home, and The Redhead (Margy Ragsdale) a forest creature of a kind my great grandma would have called a 'fey-one'. Between these four, a battle of determination, longing, magic, and wit plays out to a dramatic and highly satisfying climax.
Director (and Flying Anvil Artistic Director) Jayne Morgan has assembled a superb cast that, at every turn, finds access into the play's most vital and exciting moments; crafting characters that are at once recognizable to anyone familiar with the tales and folk lore of the region, and still entirely unique and human in their own right.
As the younger Blackmun sister Gowdie, Emily Cullum weaves in and out of playful girlish naivete and explosive adolescent impetuousness. Cullum displays keen emotional dexterity as her character careens between extremes of feeling, flirts with darkness, and teeters on madness. Perhaps even more impressive though, is her capacity for emotive restraint: the young actress always permits us to see the storm crackling just below the surface of her character, but reserves the most violent energies for moments when it is most effective. Gowdie is definitely a haunted girl, and Cullum is truly haunting to watch.
Matching Cullum beat for beat is Carolyn Corley's riveting portrayal of Bun. Corley seems to walk onto the stage straight from the mountains of Virginia fully wrapped in the language and rhythms of its people. Her Bun posses the hardened veneer familiar to anyone acquainted with rural poverty, while still imbuing the character with a deep and deeply affecting inner life. It is through Bun’s grim pragmatism in the face of supernatural darkness that we come to fully believe in the mystical realities of the world itself. Corley approaches these moments loaded with such earnest emotional content that the audience is never allowed to doubt for a moment the spirits lurking just outside the door of the Blackmun home are as real as the forest itself, and much more dangerous. This is a truly remarkable performance from a longtime Knoxville artist at the top of her game.
JD Sizemore (The Love Talker) and Margy Ragsdale (The Redhead) are to both be commended for their strong supporting roles. Ragsdale’s portrait of The Redhead is a well crafted fusion of impish sprite and old crone. Ragsdale plays her character’s intentions close to the chest, so that like the forest she embodies, the audience is never sure what is around the next bend, never sure if she is speaking truth or weaving lies. Ragsdale also accomplishes some solid physical work, devoid of anything overly theatrical, yet still full of charm and power. Likewise, Sizemore brings an exceptional physical command to his role. Like an ominous fog creeping along the banks of a river, Sizemore is almost perfectly silent as he traverses the stage, nearly interacting with everything yet almost never touching. It’s a difficult thing to play a ghost in the modern theatre and actors often exert too much effort convincing the audience of their character's reality. But Sizemore wisely dedicates himself to creating an entity that is entirely consumed with what it wants rather than what it is, and as a result we come to truly fear what The Love Talker will do if it ever gets its way with the Blackmun girls.
Concerning the production value, as a theatre maker myself, I can honestly say that short of going to Clarence Brown or the Tennessee Theatre, you won’t find a better looking show in town this year. Flying Anvil has made serious financial investments in their space and the result is an impressive (read: downright enviable) cadre of lighting and sound equipment, a spacious stage, comfortable seating, and excellent sight lines. More importantly though, they have a talented crew of designers and technicians who know how to effectively use these elements to create moments of satisfying live theatre. Morgan does an excellent job coordinating all of these design elements into a cohesive whole and obviously entered the project with a clear vision for the piece. John Ferguson’s set design is both exciting to look at, evocative of the world, functional, and full of little details that create a real sense of depth within the space. The lighting and sound designs (Jon Chemay and Mike Ponder respectively) are both well conceived and executed; the lighting for painting a vivid world full of as much darkness as color, and the sound design for the clever implementation of cicadas into the soundscape. The costume design of Virginia Baldwin suites the characters truthfully and is allowed its most complete expression with her excellent styling of The Redhead. Finally, Cheri VanBynen Perry produces several special effects that add to the dark magic of the world.
Is The Love Talker a dark play? Yes, but it’s the kind of darkness that a backwoods campfire has. A radiant and sensual darkness where the things that go bump in the night also whisper that they can make all your wildest dreams come true, even those dreams you’d never admit to having. In fact, there is a deep current of sensuality about the whole piece; never sexual or vulgar, but seething, a quality of almost-touching. From the looming press of the ever encroaching forest full of natural and unnatural terrors, where charms made of ash wood and pagan threshold rituals are all that stand between a family and the swallowing darkness. Where a girl's maturation is symbolized by a crown of thorns presented to her by a woodland spirit. Where houses are haunted and the woods are unsafe, and these are simple facts as true and natural as air and fire. And where the characters speak in a language that is both beautiful, ancient, and very close to home. The end result is a production that is entirely not to be missed, absolutely worth the price of admission, and has made me excited to see what the folks at Flying Anvil will be forging for Knoxville next.
The Love Talker runs through November 11. Tickets and information are available here.
- JP Schuffman is a theatre critic and the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club which produces professional theatre, provides training to local artists, and resources for the whole Knoxville community.
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