Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession, a gritty one-woman show based on Gurganus’ best-selling 1989 novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and presented May 18th through June 3rd at Edna Boykin Cultural Center in Wilson by the Theater of the American South of Wilson and Burning Coal Theatre Company of Raleigh, is tighter overall, but somehow much richer in detail and, thankfully, missing an entirely uncharacteristic vulgarity that would never have passed the lips of any Southern lady — let alone the oldest living Confederate widow, aged 99, and residing in a senior living center in ultra-conservative Eastern North Carolina. That obscenity, spoken during the Oct. 21st staged reading at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, was the one shocking false note in an otherwise epic symphony of storytelling performed to perfection by the estimable Quinn Hawkesworth.

Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis inexplicably stages the opening scenes of this captivating “confession” in low light. Indeed, he starts the show with the spunky 99-year-old title character, Lucy Marsden, lying flat on her back in bed audience right in a dimly lit room — but wearing a bathrobe and sweat suit under the covers?!? However, a luminous performance by Quinn Hawkesworth as the crusty blunt-spoken 99-year-old title character, Lucy Marsden, who dictates her surprising confession in a North Carolina senior living center, helps Oldest Living Confederate Widow transcend this directorial miscalculation.

Hawkesworth is warm and witty and altogether wonderful as Gurganus’ feisty heroine who was only 14 in 1899 when she married 50-year-old Capt. William Marsden, a handsome but cantankerous veteran of the War of Northern Aggression still suffering from what today’s doctor’s would label as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Born and bred in Falls, NC, Willie Marsden skipped off to war in 1862 at age 13, holding the hand of his best friend Ned Smythe, whose shocking death from a sniper’s bullet haunts Marsden asleep or awake. In many ways, the best of Willie Marsden died on the battlefields of Virginia.

As she reveals Lucy Marsden’s secrets one by one, Quinn Hawkesworth gives a veritable acting clinic, earning A+ marks as an actress and a storyteller. Hawkesworth smoothly slips beneath Lucy’s age-mottled skin, and tartly chronicles the bumpy romance between the middle-aged veteran and the schoolgirl. The Marsdens, who had “nine civilian children,” were at war with each other virtually from the start of their marriage, which ended with his death on Election Day, 1940. Indeed, they wrote a new chapter of the War Between Men and Women as the Captain’s seemingly harmless eccentricities evolved into life-threatening manifestations of madness fueled by nightmarish memories of the horrors of war.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession, which also features a surprisingly realistic set by scenic designer Chris Bernier and atmospheric illumination by lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson, draws most of its candle power from Quinn Hawkesworth’s performance and her palpable zest in bringing one of recent Southern literature’s most unforgettable characters to full, glorious life. Don’t miss it.

Note: North Carolina novelist and playwright Allan Gurganus will deliver a lecture on the “Oldest Living Confederate Widow: The Joys and Perils of Shrinking an Eight-Hundred Page Novel to One Wild Hour Onstage” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 26th. For a complete list of events associated with this spring’s performances of Driving Miss Daisy and Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession, visit http://www.theateroftheamericansouth.org/events.html.

Theater of the American South & Burning Coal Theatre Company present Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession Friday, May 25 and June 1, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 26 and June 2, at 2 p.m.; Sunday, May 27 and June 3, at 7:30 p.m. at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center, 108 Nash St. E, Wilson, North Carolina. $20 ($18 students and seniors 60+). 252/291-4329. ext. 10. Theater of the American South: http://www.theateroftheamericansouth.org/. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/. Edna Boykin Cultural Center: http://www.wilsonarts.com/. Alan Gurganus: http://www.allangurganus.com/. The Book: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375726637 (Random House). The 1994 TV Movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110721/ (Internet Movie Database) and http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/oldest_living_confederate_widow_tells_all/ (Rotten Tomatoes). The 2003 Broadway Play (starring Ellen Burstyn): http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=11203 (Internet Broadway Database).