In a small town, everybody knows everybody. But in a dark theatre, who knows anybody at all? Peter Neofotis sets out to bridge this gap through storytelling, fostering intimacy among a fresh group of listeners each night. Concord, Virginia is a warm, textured vision of rural America, conjured out of thin air and lovingly explored.
Dressed in jeans and sneakers, Neofotis enters and sits silently. The lights rise, and suddenly the words start flowing like someone’s pulled a stopper. In his first story, “The Botanist,” Neofotis relates the proceedings of a heated courtroom, where a young man is up on sodomy charges.
It’s a Southern town for sure, where old acquaintances with names like Jackson McCormick and Mary Anne Randolph still address each other formally. Neofotis captures their genteel tone precisely but not meanly – shoulders rolled back, words flung to the ceiling, aristocratic puffs of air buoying the more affronted syllables. Ultimately, it’s clear that the main crime in Concord is to “mix up the natural order of things.”
The sodomy trial is clearly a watershed moment for the residents of Concord. Big questions arise (are homosexuals all delusional? Is sodomy with a black man even worse than with a white man?) and the gentility’s florid speaking style rubs away to reveal slurs and hateful speech – language more robust, ugly, and poisoned by prejudice.
Part two, “The Vultures,” is an eerie Gothic fable. The aging widower George McJenkins finds more and more of the foreboding birds taking up roost on his property, hissing and hopping around like the harbingers of… what, exactly? The ambiguity here – the way these loping animals are “a gateway between this world and the next” – chills the story and lets us see the darker side of Concord.
Neofotis grew up in Lexington, Virginia – a city of fewer than 7,000 – and seems to possess an organic understanding of how children grow and mature when surrounded by nature. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also schooled as a plant biologist. The short fictional tales of Concord, Virginia were born after-hours on paper for several years, and eleven of them comprise his new hardcover book of the same name.
The show occupies an unusual middle ground for this reason. It’s not quite a book reading and not quite a full dramatic performance. Neofotis has his chapters memorized by heart, painting the scenes with grace and aplomb, but for the most part the show stays tethered in recitation mode. The records of Concord – the lines and lines of text – seem to float before Neofotis’s eyes at times, and we get the sense that his focus is halfway to our faces, snared in the ritual of the storytelling itself.
It’s not such a bad thing. In fact, some moments feel purposefully panegyric, like an ode from a Greek chorus to a forgotten time. Our author/performer doesn’t live the novel so much as breathe the images into view before us, and in these moments of rapture you can almost hear the soft flip of the pages.
Concord, Virginia is an accomplished work of literature, and 28-year-old Neofotis is well suited for the live translation. By the end, the dark theatre is warmed and illuminated, and we are strangers no more.