THEATER REVIEW: “Foxfire” glimpse into life in Appalachia

When I think of Appalachia, I recall Dorothea Lange’s photos taken there during the Depression era and the poverty, hopelessness and want they conveyed.

“Foxfire” doesn’t show us that Appalachia. The time in “Foxfire” is now and these folks are the survivors or descendants of those bad times.
There’s not much plot here. An old mountain woman (Jill Drexler) widowed five years ago putters around the place, talking to her dead husband (Charlie Riendeau) and wishing the kids would write more often.

This day she’s fending off another offer to buy from real estate developer Prince Carpenter (Howard Bickle Jr.), who wants to put a vacation resort on the family’s 100 acres in Stony Lonesome (named by the wife of an ancestor who thought those words fit the landscape).

Annie Nations (Drexler) is 79 and seldom hears from her two oldest children. Her youngest son Dillard (Ted Leib) has married and left the mountain to become a famous bluegrass singer, and tonight he’s back in town for a concert. And young teacher Holly Burrell (Sharon Wezelman) has returned from the city to teach on the mountain.

Will she go to Dillard’s concert? Will Annie sell the place? That’s about all there is to the story. The value of “Foxfire” is that it documents (albeit fictionally) a life that shifting political and social realities indicate will likely disappear from the American scene. Kathy Brombacher directs; the play runs through April 10 at Moonlight Stage Productions’ Avo Playhouse.

“Foxfire” was inspired by a high-school teacher’s effort to get his students involved in local history. In 1966, he sent them out to interview Appalachian mountain dwellers about a lifestyle that was fast disappearing. The interviews continued for a decade, spawning a series of books describing the folklore, traditions, music and way of life.

In 1980, writer Susan Cooper and acting legend Hume Cronyn saw theatrical possibilities in this information and spun a play out of it, which opened on Broadway in 1982; Cronyn’s wife Jessica Tandy won a Tony Award for the role of Annie.

Drexler’s no-nonsense Annie and Riendeau’s bemused Hector play well off each other; Leib (who sings and plays a mean guitar) is a suitably exasperated Dillard. Bickle plays down the stereotype of the rapacious developer, something I suspect one would have to do among that group in order to get that signature on the dotted line. And Burrell convinces as the schoolteacher who may harbor unexpressed feelings for Dillard.

Flashbacks fill in the Nations’ backstory (and allow for a charming cameo by Fred Harlow, playing a physician), but mostly “Foxfire” is a character-driven slice of a fast-disappearing American way of life.

Design and technical aspects are outstanding: the pre-show (and in-show) music provided by the very fine local Needle in a Haystack Band; N. Dixon Fish’s wonderfully dilapidated set; Paul Canaletti, Jr.’s fine lighting and Peter Hashagen’s sound design all add to the atmosphere.

“Foxfire” offers a fine production if a rather sentimentalized portrait of these courageous, rugged people.

The details

“Foxfire” plays through April 10 at Avo Playhouse, 330 Main St., Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

For ticket,s call (760) 724-2110 or visit a href="http://www.moonlightstage.com
" target="_blank"> HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.