(l-r): Mark Mozingo, Leah Turley,
Chris Raddatz, Ginny Myers Lee,
Bill Raulerson, Gayton Scott
and Matthew Delaney
How does one describe a Southern masterpiece? Amazing, stunning, profound…; even the strongest superlatives seem insufficient when speaking of Triad Stage's latest production, Reynolds Price's New Music.
You haven't seen anything remotely like New Music anywhere this season, and you won't unless you get yourself to Greensboro's Triad Stage. New Music breaks ground, celebrates a master of Southern literature and, perhaps even more important in the long run, redefines modern regional theatre.
Add to this the fact that on opening night of the trilogy's third play, Better Days, it was announced that Triad Stage had won the NC Theatre Conference's 2011 George A. Parides Professional Theatre Award – for the second time.
New Music springs from the genius of Triad Stage creative director Preston Lane, who explains in the playbill that, as a young actor, he set out to honor James B. Duke professor of English Reynolds Price using a monologue from August Snow in his auditions. Later, in Triad Stage's second season, Lane actually directed August Snow in what he calls his "dream production."
At that time, Price himself came to see the play, and Lane promised the writer that he would someday stage the entire New Music trilogy. Although Reynolds Price died in 2011, Lane nonetheless fulfills his promise. It is only the second time – ever – that the entire trilogy has been staged.
The first two plays of the rotating-repertory-style New Music, August Snow and Night Dance, are covered together in a single presentation. The third, Better Days, is staged in another. Triad Stage offers theatre-goers the opportunity to see the plays separately or take in the entire trilogy in a one-day marathon. I would suggest the marathon for an amazing day of Southern theatre immersion. Either way, see them both! A friend who intended to see only Part I found herself compelled to come back, husband gladly in tow, to an evening performance of Part II.
Each of the three plays covers the lives, loves, and legacy of the Averys in a small town in Eastern North Carolina. Their struggles, conflicts, and surprises are packed into Price's amazing dialogue and monologues.
The characters in this Carolina continuum center around the town's golden boy, Neal Avery, played in Part I by Mark Mozingo, in his Triad Stage debut. OK, I know I'm not the only person who noticed this because I heard a woman behind me whisper it to her companion: Mozingo's Southern drawl is a ringer for Matthew McConaughey. And granted, most actors do not appreciate comparisons to their more famous counterparts, but Mozingo's voice, enticing and electrifying, brings to the fore this character's, well, charisma. Mozingo's delivery and mannerisms tell Neal Avery's complicated story as much as do his words.
Ginny Myers Lee is Neal's strong-willed wife, the young Taw Avery, in Part I. Triad Stage-goers will remember Lee from Providence Gap, Oleanna, and Brother Wolf. This UNCG MFA grad has done UNCG proud in New York and Europe and brings a luminous transparency to what might otherwise be a hard-edged and hard-to-watch character. It's a tricky tightrope, but Lee walks it with dramatic agility.
UNCG MFA student Matthew Delaney is Porter Farwell, Neal's best friend and confidant. This might be Delaney's best Triad Stage performance to date (other TS credits include A Christmas Carol and Providence Gap). Delaney passionately portrays the small-town "second banana" who doesn't really find his place in the assemblage until he leaves.
No Southern family is complete without its matriarch, and Gayton Scott as mother Roma Avery is every bit the steel magnolia whose fragrance just never stops shocking people, even after it's faded. This Broadway vet can so subtly steal a scene that you won't even realize it until it's fait accompli.
Not to be overlooked is Leah Turley as Geneveive Slappy, commanding in her role as the young, determined woman who sees her dreams collapse around her because of the cruelty of war. The ephemeral scene between Turley and Mozingo is mystical, magical and deeply moving. Turley also plays Virginia Wilson in Better Days.
The character list doubles as time (almost 30 years) passes and Part II begins, emphasizing not only the sheer enormity of this production but its scope.
In Part II, Steve Brady, in his Triad Stage debut, plays the older, wiser Neal Avery, and Triad Stage fave Christine Morris the older Taw. Chris Raddatz as the Averys' Marine son Cody and Bill Raulerson (whom many local theatre patrons already know and love) as Dob Watkins both give depth to already stellar performances. Jeffery West, another Triad Stage vet, is convincing as an older Porter, the Navy captain who has seen the world and war and now just wants to come home. UNCG faculty member Michael Flannery plays Fontaine Belfont.
Space does not allow nor can words convey the mastery of the New Music set, sound, and costuming. Every Triad Stage set is a work of art, and this one, by Howard C. Jones, again fills the bill. The "linoleum" floor of the boarding house (the home place that nestles all the scenes), should be framed and exhibited in an art museum. Hard edges everywhere symbolize the difficulty of the times. The Broadway-worthy costumes are designed by Bill Brewer, who indeed has designed for Broadway and now teaches costume design.
And what would a Southern play be without food? Eggs are actually scrambled, lime jello, ladled, and peach pie, eaten straight from a tin pie plate. "Set chef" wasn't mentioned in the credits, but foodies in attendance will appreciate the nod to Southern cuisine.
Suffice it to say, in New Music, no sense goes unsatiated.
As a reporter for The Raleigh Times in 1982, I interviewed Reynolds Price before the airing of his television play, Private Contentment. I looked at that clip recently and noticed his eyes, dark as molasses, regarding his interviewer somewhat skeptically. I'm certain I didn't realize I was in the presence of Southern literary royalty, although Price would probably have cringed at that moniker. On opening night of Better Days, Price's niece, sister-in-law, and 10-year-old great-niece were in attendance. During the play, I saw the 10-year-old listening to her great-uncle's words, literally on the edge of her seat, transfixed, her eyes, too, as dark as molasses.
New Music continues through March 18. For details, see the sidebar.