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For many years, the little country church I grew up in had a Christmas Eve play, and it was the highlight of the year. I can look back and mark my growth through the parts I played, and watching Triad Stage’s Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity was like revisiting those years.
In penning Beautiful Star, Triad Stage director Preston Lane harks back to his own experiences with Christmas plays, particularly his own Aunt Shirley’s, performed by friends and relatives in her basement. So, this is a forum with which he’s familiar; but as we’ve come to expect from Lane, it’s so much more than a one-dimensional story of the Nativity.
By Lane’s own admission, the play is an amalgam — of Nativity story, medieval mystery play, and Aunt Shirley’s annual basement production. The characters reflect all those influences.
The scene is the sanctuary of the Open Heart Community Fellowship in the mountains of North Carolina. Our little congregation is preparing to host their annual dramatic bash and there is excitement in the air.
As in any little community church, one surname reigns supreme, and, in this case, it’s the Ledbetters: Reverend Roy, his wife Vestina, their children, and black sheep Tidence, played by Broach Theatre alum James Tunstall. Everyone has a part in the play, whether it be starring role (as God), musicians, or stagehands.
The tricky part of this production is that characters are playing characters. And that can get a little dicey. These characters are, after all, supposed to be amateurs — i.e., professional actors playing inexperienced actors.
The plot follows the main idea of the Middle Ages mystery plays — taking stories of damnation and redemption from parts of the Bible and dramatizing them. We’re treated to scenes from Old Testament and New, from the fall of Lucifer to Adam and Eve to Abraham and Isaac and the rest, a perfect canvas to showcase all the talent evident in this cast.
The interpretation of Bible stories goes from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. Some of the Biblical characters tug at your heartstrings, and some tickle them — Lucifer, for example, played appropriately enough by prodigal son Tidence Ledbetter. James Tunstall as Ledbetter as Lucifer is laugh-master of this production. His take on Lucifer will have you wanting to take the devil home with you, as he is clearly the most fun of the whole Hee-Haw gang.
On the sublime side, you’ve never seen the story of Abraham and Isaac portrayed with such intensity as church member Vernon Sparks (N.C. A&T alum Junious Leak) and his young son Paul (Justin Harrington, a Kernodle Middle School sixth-grader) bring to these roles. The story of a father who is ready to give his son as a sacrifice brought tears to the eyes of many in the audience, and it’s no wonder, with scenes like this, that Beautiful Star has had a long run in Greensboro. Abraham, get thee to Broadway!
Presiding over it all is, well, God, played by the good Reverend Ledbetter (Carroll “Chip” Johnson), the little flock’s shepherd, who, it turns out, has a few flaws himself. Yay!
But not so for his wife, Vestina (Cinny Strickland, reprising this role from previous years), the proverbial salt of the earth and possibly this production’s guiding light. Michael Tourek, as the town postal carrier Franklin Duncan, pulls off a confused Joseph and equally mystified Noah and proves he’s captain of his ship, be it humorous, dramatic, or musical.
Whether you’re rolling with laughter at Lane’s offbeat shepherd’s story (combining the comic talents of James Tunstall, Cinny Strickland, and Junious Leak) or thrilling to Mary’s (Terra Mackintosh) musical musings about her mystical pregnancy, this show leaves you with the same transcendent feeling that must have overcome audiences of the medieval mystery plays — not to mention Lane’s relatives in Aunt Shirley’s basement.
Not to be overlooked are the musical members of the congregation — or wait, are they church members? The bluegrass trio seems to be in a world of its own, far removed from this cast of characters. But the music, including some songs written by Greensboro resident Laurelyn Dossett, is beautiful; and you are more than happy to suspend disbelief for the many times the musicians step into the spotlight.
Note: Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity continues through December 23. See our calendar for details.