Steel Magnolias have nothing on the guts, tenacity, physical hardships, can-do attitudes and indelible values of the Hillbilly Women currently represented on stage at Arclight Theater. It’s 1978 in Appalachia—pronounced Appa- Laa- Cha not, Appa-Lay- Cha. Sharing their struggles, six women, from their thirties to seventies, talk of poverty: patched cotton hose and heated rocks to warm the bed, aborted education, rape, teenage pregnancy: if they screw you, it’s perfectly ok. If you let yourself be screwed, you’re a bad girl, domestic violence, relationships: it took me two years just to get him to talk to me, religion: the best little kids sat in the front pew and got spit on, family, the mortality of miners, and unions (especially unions): pushin’ a ton and a half of coal for thirty cents a day which were, at the time, petrifying.
Strung together by gospel, union and country and western songs which would’ve been more effective were they less familiar, stories flow, one in response to the other as if the characters are conversing. A “Witness” (Donna Hanover) who provides preface, epilogue and intermittent comment is, in my opinion, completely expendable.
Denise, Ada and Sharleen (Mimi Turque, Annette Hunt, Lauren Fox) persevere, opening The Blue Ridge Sewing Factory in Atlanta, which has brief success. They already know how to do a man’s job. Those who scrape by on farms are surprised to discover others have no vegetables or chickens. Everyone can cook and make corn liquor. Loose-hipped Della (Mickey Sumner) escapes to town, is abandoned, and becomes a waitress. She knows her bones will eventually lay back home. Jewel (Alicia Meer) is guilted into giving up her dream of being a nurse to stay near family, relegating her life to the cotton mill. Siddy’s (Evangeline Johns) husband dies of “black lung” disease. He’d worked in the mines since age eleven. The insurance company fights her claim.
The women are connected…to the hollows…to the wild life that still survives…to their families…to one another and to us. It’s a parallel universe. Though subject matter is familiar, specific portrayals make it affecting. Language is colloquial, economic and real. Standing tired, but square shouldered, the group seems to say: Don’t lump us together, take us for granted, minimize our capabilities or our existence. We are women, but for circumstance, like you.
Lauren Fox so completely morphs into Sharleen, I didn’t recognize the actress. From the awkward, insistent physicality with which she communicates, to her believable and disturbing, matter-of-fact recall of past horrors, we feel in the presence of a complete, faceted human being. Her accent is high craft (though moments are lost in its thickness when she turns away) AND she can sing! More, please.
Despite intermittently going up on her lines, Mimi Turque offers a solid characterization and unwavering focus to which we’re drawn. The nervous, spunky, appealing Denise wears her heart on her sleeve. She listens intently and reacts to her “sisters.”
We all had a schoolteacher or maiden aunt like Annette Hunt’s Ada. She’s warm, recognizable and because of that, comfortable. Hunt’s stage presence is quiet and firm.
Donna Hanover is fine in a thankless task.
Joseph G. Aulisi’s costumes are excellent and evocative. He manages to outfit each different personality with things that character would surely wear. Musical Director and Arranger, Michael Rice, does a good, rousing job with arrangements and the best he can with mostly limited vocal range. Joe Sporn (Guitar), Josh Gordon (Fiddle), and Michael Rice (piano) provide excellent accompaniment as well as being enjoyably, musically present as we file into our seats.
Director, Sondra Lee (who played Tiger Lily in the Mary Martin Peter Pan!) offers a nuanced ensemble production. Characters relate to one another well, differentiating themselves by mannerism, timing and speech. Visual casting is terrific—what wonderful faces these ladies have. The stage is ably utilized.
Not having read the original material, I can only say that Elizabeth Stearns has created an appealing narrative format.
Hillbilly Women is a modest, entertaining evening with an emphatically valid message: We are them. Sit up and take notice. The women are good company.
Photo credit: Steve Friedman
(standing, l-r): Lauren Fox as Sharleen, Annette Hunt as Ada, and Alicia Meer as Jewel; (seated, l-r): Mimi Turque as Denise, Evangeline Johns as Siddy; and Mickey Sumner as Sharleen.
Lauren Fox (pictured, center foreground) as Sharleen; with (l-r in background) Mimi Turque, Annette Hunt, Evangeline Johns, Mickey Sumner, and Alicia Meer.
The cast of Hillbilly Women: Donna Hanover, Mimi Turque, Lauren Fox, Annette Hunt, Alicia Meer, Mickey Sumner and Evangeline Johns; with director Sondra Lee (pictured foreground).
Hillbilly Women by Elizabeth Stearns
Based on the book Hillbilly Women by Kathy Kahn
Directed by Sondra Lee
Lauren Fox, Donna Hanover, Annette Hunt,
Evangeline Johns, Alicia Meer, Mickey Sumner. Mimi Turque
The Bleeker Company at
The Arclight Theater
152 West 7st Street
212-352-3101 or www.TheaterMania.com
Through January 31