The easiest way to shatter your notions of a person is to actually meet him. Sometimes, this is a positive thing: someone who you presumed to be a jerk turns out to be friendly. Sometimes, it goes the other way: nice guys/girls turn out to be cretins. Either way, meeting someone makes that person human. Hence why it’s a dicey proposition to meet your hero.
Venus Theatre tackles the question of fame and mythology in its production of Claudie Hukill. The titular charcter of this two hour drama stands next to Paul Bunyan when it comes to larger-than-life tall tales. And though the entire play revolves around Claudie, the audience never has the pleasure of meeting him.
The play opens with the blind Clara Hukill (Harlie Sponaugle) opining to her granddaughter Kit Hukill (the young Rebecca Korn, a seventh grader) about Claudie, who can do no wrong in her eyes. We learn that he’s been missing for some time, and Kit’s mother Pearl (Alyssa Sanders) is beside herself with anxiety wondering where he is. She tells Clara that the family has been receiving financial help from her other son, Robbie ( Christopher Williams,) a reporter at the Boston Globe, and his wife, she of the trust fund, Tierney Chase (Katie Jeffries).
This takes place in the Hukill’s small living room, part of their small house “in a holler outside Saunders, Logan Country, West Virginia, along Buffalo Creek” [sic]. It’s 1972, they’re poor as poor gets (Pearl drops that they’re living on food stamps), living in a mining town but the miner of the family, Claudie, is an absentee. Local newspaper editor and family friend Sam Burton (Rick Coleman) has written a series about a mine cave-in (one that included Claudie). Robbie ends a nearly eight year absence to attempt to buy the rights to the series.
Though not in the first few scenes, we really learn the story of the hollow through the wonderful Tierney Chase. Jeffries plays her to a “T,” with a Boston accent that clashes tensely with the slang and broken grammar that fills the room. She comes from money, but she’s kind. Never wanting to flash it, she has a few faux pas (such as explaining to Clara what Martha’s Vineyard is, where her mother has a house). Jeffries makes these as uncomfortable as they should be. But these moments are uncomfortable because we know she doesn’t mean to be rude, she’s just never been out of the big city, high-society life before.
It’s also through her that Robbie gives us the story of Claudie. He was always a “rascal,” for lack of a better word, but in a Robin Hood-esque way. His one felony (which he openly admitted to and was never arrested for) was vandalizing a local school. Many muse he knew the school didn’t have the money to fix itself, so desegregation would be the only answer. Whatever the case, it wasn’t unusual for Claudie to be bending the rules to his own particular liking.
Even so, Claudie is the town hero, and Robbie spends most of the play fighting with his own inner demons: self-confidence issues stemming from the fact that everyone loved Claudie, who broke the rules, while everyone trusted Robbie to the point of possibly ignoring him. Williams plays him well, though he could gain a bit more emotional impact by slowing down his lines a bit. Sometimes, it felt like a wall of words gushing out, without the feeling that would normally accompany them, especially when discussing the sibling rivalry he has with his brother.
Closes December 23, 2012
Venus Theatre Play Shack
21 C Street
Laurel, MD 20707
2 hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
As the play goes on, reveals are made that are best discovered at the play itself. Sanders plays Pearl as the broken-down, confused woman she is, wondering where her husband is, while Korn plays her daughter with grace. Kit is 11-years-old, and we quickly discover she knows where her father is. And just like him, she disappears for lengths of time sans explanation or reason. Everyone but Clara is worried about her, and Sponaugle makes the blind’s woman’s adherence to the book of Claudie believable. She’s in denial, because if she isn’t, then she’d have to admit part of the problem might lie within her.
A few more dress rehearsals would probably have been beneficial, as almost every actor (save for Jeffries and Korn) missed a cue or flubbed a line. Never was this particularly egregious. In fact, at times it added an air of authenticity to the speech patterns of these mostly-uneducated, small town folks who spoke in the truest dialects of small-town American slang. But, only when played off, which they often weren’t. In those situations, the lines felt awkward and flubbed, though it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a little more practice.
The biggest flaw with the play has nothing to do with the actors. At times, the point is drilled in, jackhammer-style. It could do with a bit of subtlety (take a look at Jeffries’ wringing hands when she’s said something uncomfortable), the old show-don’t-tell adage.
But the players and the director clearly poured their hearts into this production, something that is never lost and should never be ignored. The question remains burning in the audience’s mind: What is this Claudie Hukill really like?
Claudie Hukill . by Sean O’Leary . Directed by Deborah Randall . Set Design by Amy Rhodes . Costume Design by Marilyn Johnson . Produced by Venus Theatre . Reviewed by Travis M. Andrews