Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Smoke on the Mountain Review from 2007

Some clown used the comments to advertise nasty stuff on an old post. I can't find a way to delete comments ... So I'm deleting the old post and replacing it here.

We were blessed this weekend by a generous couple who gave us tickets to see Playhouse in the Park's production of Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. This third play in the trilogy about the musical Sanders family brings the beloved combination of old-time music (think guitars, banjos, mandolins, bass viols, and tight harmonies that tug at memories of celtic roots) and winsome and wistful storytelling that makes Garrison Keillor read like the yellow pages.

Set in 1945, just a few months after the victory in Japan, the play depicts one last gathering with the Sanders family singing a church service at Mount Pleasant Baptist church before they split up to head in different directions. Mama Vera Sanders is visibly upset that her daughter June is moving to Texas with her husband Mervin -- who is taking a pastorate of a small Baptist church on the frontier. However, son Dennis Sanders will be taking over the ministry there in Mount Pleasant. Meanwhile uncle Stanley Sanders has returned from his career in Hollywood to be a part of the homecoming -- but something is obviously troubling him.

What is nice about this production is that is played entirely straight -- no irony whatsoever. The characters are earnest and winsome, at times a little daft. But there's no mockery of these people or this time. The helpful contrast might be with O Brother, Where Art Thou? In that film, George Clooney mugs the whole time at the head of an eccentric cast cutting the Odyssey down to size to fit into depression era Southern purgatory complete with klansmen politicians, strange riverside seductresses, and a psychotic mono-optic bible salesman. All sense of the people and time are blurred into the strange and darkly comic. Simply put, the film drips of irony and the arched eyebrow. About the only thing that Smoke on the Mountain shares with O Brother Where Art Thou is really good music.

We have an elderly lady in our church -- a real tough cookie who served with the WAVES in World War II. She's told me several times "I feel sorry for children today. When we were growing up, there was so much goodness about -- and they don't have that today." Smoke on the Mountain evokes what I believe she's talking about: earnestness, family, a love of home. This was an era when people made music rather than simply listening to it. Each monologue carries its own poignancy:

First comes patriarch Burl- he explains why he and Vera are retiring from music to work the old family farm. It's a wistful story straight out of EB White depicting a love of the land (complete with rich lush descriptions of farm life in each of the four seasons). However, a touch of reality hits as he tells of his emotional struggle against taking out the loan, an action that violates his religious principles (I remember well my grandfather talking about how he lost a bundle of money co-signing a loan during the 1930s -- loans were not for common people then -- they were for the wealthy. That's why George Bailey's Building and Loan is a threat to the Bank in It's a Wonderful Life). We see how he is gradually persuaded that this loan won't put him at risk and that he can enjoy the new prosperity of post-war America.

Comical monologues come from Denise, the sister who has married and given birth to out of control twins, and mother Vera, who delivers a fine example of a hyper-allegorized children's message. Brother Stanley talks about sin and redemption while June, preparing to leave for Texas gives a brief but heartwarming monologue about following God's call and knowing that wherever God is, there is home.

But the piece that tore me up was Dennis. He had just returned from war. He spoke of how some think that the call to the ministry is for the weak, but he knew it was for the strong. And then he spoke of a man in his Marine company who had a call to ministry. This soldier dropped to his knees every day to pray -- he didn't work on the Sabbath -- he endured the insults and threats of his fellow soldiers. They stole his pocket bible from him and played keep away, but he never responded in anger. But when they were assaulting the heights on Okinawa and were beaten back, it was this bible believing praying soldier who stayed atop the heights, gathering the wounded and lowering them down the cliffs with a piece of rope and a prayer for each of them. Dennis said that was the kind of toughness that ministry required, and that was what he hoped to bring to his ministry.

It was a tearjerker for me because I knew the story. It's not a made up tale for a play. Desmond Doss was his real name -- he was the only Medal of Honor winner who was a consciencous objector. He was a medic who refused to carry a gun because of his religious beliefs. And that day in Okinawa, he saved 100 lives. I knew his story from a comic book (someone tell John Schroeder to do a feature on that!) I'd read about Medal of Honor recipients (no-one "wins" a Medal of Honor). I found a site for a documentary about his life that just recently came out. The major modificaiton in the play -- the hero dies, whereas in real life Desmond Doss lived to a ripe old age. He died just last year.

In Sum: Great Music, Good laughs, and honoring that which ought to be honored. It's no wonder the first Smoke on the Mountain is already the most produced musical in America right now. I have high hopes that this production of the third musical will rate just as highly.

Soli Deo Gloria