Big Dawg Productions has a busy summer celebrating the cultural life of our great state. They are reviving “The Hermit of Fort Fisher” by NC playwright David Wright—only this time it will show as an outdoor drama at Greenfield Lake. The show sold out two runs last year at Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse and in Brunswick County. The same week that “The Hermit…” opens, they will launch Beth Henley’s “Miss Firecracker Contest” at the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. In the midst of all the excitement, Big Dawg has taken on a truly lovely and unique project that touts the cultural heritage of our state. “Maytle’s World” is a lyric memory piece by and about our NC Poet Laureate, Shelby Stephenson.
Born outside Benson, NC, in 1938, Stephenson’s life story spans several worlds: the Depression and WWII, the post-war years in America and rising tide of education, and the power of having strong family roots in a world of social mobility. In a way his life embodies much of the message of the 20th century in America: possibility, determination and self-knowledge.
It’s not a traditional play in the sense of memorized lines, performers playing individual characters, and the piece moving forward in chronological order, while the protagonist battles conflict. “Maytle’s World” is a view of Stephenson’s in rural NC with his brother, Paul Jr. (Steve Rassin), father (Lee Lowrimore), mother Maytle (Deb Bowen), and a host of others (brought to life by Rassin). Much of Stephenson’s work is autobiographical, drawing heavily on his experiences with tobacco farming, hunting with his father, and then his mother’s slow demise. Rather than telling a story in order, the script moves in and out of visual moments brought to life through poetry. It is like seeing a poem stand up from the page, walk across the room and talk to the audience. Do not expect traditional dialogue; there are lyrical exchanges. Sometimes one character responds to another, and other times Stephenson takes the audience through time to view a moment of sunlight that can never be seen the same way twice.
Though they are not tasked with traditional performances, the actors create very real characters. Rassin, especially, brings to life assorted neighbors and friends mostly through the use of hats, as well as his voice and body. He never leaves the stage area for a full costume change, which make the differentiations more challenging and thus showing more of his own craft.
Deb Bowen’s Maytle has to hold her own as the only woman onstage. Indeed that is a good metaphor for the position of women in that male-dominated world. Stephenson obviously reveres his mother, which comes through clearly (hence the title). But his father is his hero, and Lowrimore plays Paul Sr. with incredible charisma. He guides the ensemble with the certainty of the family patriarch. I personally would follow him into the deepest, darkest woods, and believe he and his pack of hunting dogs would get us home safely. I also wouldn’t want him mad at or disappointed in me. The respect that he commanded as head of the family is clear.
Director Steve Coley brings forth the narrator, Stephenson, reading from a battered composition notebook—like a young poet recording the world about him. Definite high-points of the show are Coley singing traditional songs a cappella (“The Fox,” “I Got a Pig”). Coley’s Stephenson loves his big brother, adores his mother and is also conflicted about his own history.
The set is simple: a recliner, hat stand, desk and chairs, from which we see stairs built to an attic, dogs sent hunting in the woods, tobacco-curing in a barn, and more. It’s as if the desk that Stephenson writes at is a window into a much greater world than anyone imagines possible.
The Cameron Art Museum is really a wonderful location for an event like this, as it brings together so many strands of our state’s cultural life. However, the acoustics in the reception hall are awful, and the language is so rich, textured and precise that to lose one word is a disservice to the work. The use of language is so evocative, powerful and beautiful, it is heartbreaking when he describes tragic, life-changing moments. His mastery of the poet’s trade and tools brought to life as a ballad singing out in front of you is a deeper reflection of his work. After an evening of “Maytle’s World,” audiences will have no doubt as to why his appointment as Poet Laureate was celebrated widely by our state’s literary community.
As an evening of artistic exploration blending performance, poetry and traditional music, it is a wonderful celebration of NC. With most of his adult life centered around teaching, if anything, this work reminds us that one of the most powerful teaching tools is to sit at the feet of a master craftsman. What Stephenson paints with language defies my ability to describe. Much like lifetimes could be spent studying Whitman, Frost or Longfellow—and still not plumb the depths of the craft—the same can be attributed to Stephenson’s work. It is not that his story is unique; it is, rather, that his story resonates so deeply with people, and he tells it in a way that his words get into our skin and bones.