Wilmington is lucky to be the home of one of the rock stars of Southern Literature: Clyde Edgerton. TheatreNOW currently is showing a stage adaptation of “Raney,” Edgerton’s debut novel. It’s brought to life by John Justice
Published in 1985, it made Edgerton’s name and set the tone for much of his work to come. It draws upon his own life and family for inspiration to look at life’s bigger questions in a deeply personal voice. The stage adaptation is not the complete novel—nor should it be or could it be. I highly recommend you read the book, but if you haven’t, the show is a wonderful introduction to these memorable, incredibly human characters.
The show opens with the narrator, Raney (Kendra Goehring-Garrett). It’s her wedding night, and she’s in a motel room, confronted for the first time with the sight of her new husband, Charles (Zach Hanner), in his tighty-whities. Things are not going as she planned; though frankly this small-town, Baptist girl has not been well prepared for this moment. More so, her more-sophisticated husband lacks some of the maturity that age and experience will bring (but could go a long way toward greasing the wheels now). Will they make it through the wedding night—or the wedding week for that matter? It’s a period of adjustment, and they’re living near Raney’s family.
The audience’s introduction to the family comes by a day at the beach with Aunt Naomi (Kire Stenson), Uncle Nate (Ron Hasson) and Mom (Lynnette O’Callaghan). They discuss the excitement of seeing a woman with a tattoo on her leg. Though Charles finds this moderately irritating, it is nothing compared to the conversation that is coming. As Raney sums up later in the show, Charles should have been born a Yankee. Raney’s dad (Mark Basquill) is not much of a talker. He’s more of a strong, silent, providing type. When possible, he offers words of wisdom and tries to keep the rudder of their family boat heading in the right direction, but he doesn’t compete with the voices around him too much. Sporting a beard and a convincing Southern accent, Basquill surprises in this role. It is a family that anyone would find overwhelming, but the performances are so clear and distinct that it would surprising if theatre-goers walked out and did not recognize the people onstage in their real lives.
Hasson’s Uncle Nate drinks his way through life (the only one in the family who does). Haunted and frightened, he lashes out at the people who love him the most. The one-step-forward-one-step-back lifestyle and spinning chaos that he embodies is palpable. More so is the frustration and confusion of his sisters who love him and can not help him or stop him.
Edgerton has spoken on many occasions about the influence that his female relatives had on his life. They have become a truly a reoccurring theme in his work. They are strong, loving, determined women, who shepherd their families (in many forms) as best they can. Stenson and O’Callaghan embody that far from simple task, and do it memorably with kindness, food and gaudy dishes.
But the show is titled “Raney,” and it is her growth and evolution with which we are ultimately concerned. If you haven’t heard Goehring-Garrett sing, you are missing out. From “Evita” to “Debbie Does Dallas,” her beautiful voice has carried the title role in numerous shows. Music brought Raney and Charles together; therefore, music permeates the piece. When Goehring-Garrett and Hanner sing gospel accapella, it actually raises gooseflesh on the arms. It is rare to see Goehring-Garrett in nonsinging roles, and though she does sing in this show, it is not on the same scale. Consequently, audiences have an opportunity to see the truly fine craft Goehring-Garrett uses in all her work, which frequently is outshone by her magnificent voice.
Her dynamic with Hanner intrigues. He clearly is in love with this beautiful, difficult, strong-yet-brittle woman and is totally baffled as to how to proceed. Their journey together is one folks can’t wrench their gaze away from.
Music, writing and visual art don’t just permeate Edgerton’s work, they are all facets of the renaissance man. Currently, serving as chair of the The Arts Council of Wilmington, Edgerton graciously hosted two pre-show receptions during the run of “Raney” as fundraisers. If you haven’t had the opportunity to experience Edgerton’s live performance, make plans to do so. He usually plays a little music, tells a few stories and reads a passage from a book. Every moment is enchants and will have you grinning from ear to ear.
In this case, because it was before “Raney,” he talked about the process of writing the book, its road to publication and then to the stage. In addition, Edgerton has painted portraits of the characters from the book, which are on display at TheatreNOW for the run of the show and are also sold as fundraisers for the arts council. It’s an interesting moment to see the characters as painted by the writer, because they take on a specific shape in one’s mind when reading the book. Then, attendees see the play and how they evolve with the performances and the nuances the performers bring to the text. It’s rewarding to also get to see how the author views them in his mind’s eye. It adds yet another level of understanding. It is a fascinating intersection of perception and art.
I must confess, Though I was born in the South and consider myself a Southerner, I have never been able to eat pimento cheese. It is proof that my parents were carpetbaggers (sigh). However, Chef Denise Gordon serves a pimento-cheese appetizer with sweet pepper jelly that knocks diners’ socks off! (Never in my life had I licked a plate with pimento cheese clean on it until then.)
Gordon’s handmade pasta, too, can make any night feel like a special night out: it’s not too soggy, not too al dente; it’s just lovely. As the table next to me (who also got the vegetarian option) comments: “This can’t be vegetarian! She makes it look so good and realistic.” Amen.
The perfect meal is capped off with a sweet, crumbly peach-and-strawberry cobbler, loaded with whipped cream. Gordon uses something perfect for her cobbler crust, because it hits that amazing center of just salty, just crunchy and perfectly balanced and decadent.
Hands down, the evening comprises one of those magical moments when all the elements blend together perfectly: wonderful food, beautiful art, amazing music, and provocative, funny and loving language brought to life by talented performers. Everything is there and firing on all cylinders. It’s the kind celebration of Southern culture that I really love, and it reminds us that sometimes the best way to build a community is through shared laughter and art.
Fri.-Sun., May 22 – June 14, 7 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.
TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th St.