TheatreNOW presents Paul Ferguson’s adaptation of local literary luminary Clyde Edgerton’s novel “Killer Diller.” “Killer Diller” is a continuation of Wesley Benfield’s story from Edgerton’s “Walking Across Egypt.” “Killer Diller” was adapted to a film in 2006 that starred Lucas Black. Ferguson’s stage adaptation is quite lovely and captures the central theme of music in Edgerton’s life.
Edgerton fans last saw Wesley at the end of “Walking Across Egypt,” newly ensconced in Mattie Rigsby’s (Lynn Ingram) home and learning to live by her rules, which include church-going, mutual respect and good manners. Now at the end of his teens, Wesley (Kai Knight) is living in a halfway house near Mattie. He is learning to be a brick mason and has joined “a gospel band when they’re watching, a blues band when they’re not.” He’s on the cusp of adulthood and troubled by young love and lust. Into his life walks Phoebe (LaRaisha Burnette), a resident at the Christian diet center that, like the halfway house, is run by the Baptist College. The Sears brothers (Steve Rassin and George Domby) run the college. Though a little uptight, they’re very impressed with themselves.
The band becomes an unexpected focal point of life around the college and the halfway house. Under the musical direction of Jared Cline, the onstage group is an absolute delight. George Stafford (keyborads) plays Wesley’s roommate and co-conspirator, who defends the merits of the blues and is determined to make the group a financial success. Vern (Ramon Garcia) is the oddly gifted, possibly telepathic, bass player. Aaron Van Nyatten (guitar) and Ashton Hayes (drummer) keep things moving along smoothly, while Sherri (Amy Carter) and Shanita (Lemetrius Nolan) battle about the roles each singer should have in the band. Wesley joins on guitar and lead vocals. They are wonderful. Each is talented and skilled, but together they surprise in their cohesion and blend into something greater than the sum of their parts.
Anyone who has had the joy of seeing Edgerton perform live can attest to the basic pattern he tends to follow: He plays a few songs accompanying himself on a stringed instrument, reads excerpts from a book or two, and tells tales about the real people and experiences that inspired his work. His humor is self-effacing, and like Red Skelton, he tends to laugh at his own jokes—because he is so tickled by humanity and our own foibles.
Kai Knight brings Wesley to life as a younger version of Edgerton as a storyteller. He is tall and lanky, and reproduces a couple of Edgerton’s mannerisms. Most importantly, he brings a sweet, kind humor to his interactions that is signature Edgerton. Music is central to Edgerton’s work and life. Fans of his work would have to be deaf, blind and royally self-absorbed to miss that. Knight sings Wesley’s soul into existence with a determination and passion only softened by his beautiful voice. Knight really sells it—and having to work opposite LaRaisha Burnette is intimidating, to say the least. Because she is the total package: voice, acting, stage presence, beauty—she has it all.
“I stopped eating lunch before I come here,” I commented to my theatre companion. I think she thought I was joking. “No, seriously, I don’t eat lunch before or breakfast the next morning.”
Why? Because I always wind up stuffing myself on Chef Denise Gordon’s food. “Killer Diller” was no different. It started with the bread basket that accompanies the salad course. In the show Mattie Rigsby is known for her corn bread, so of course Chef Gordon had the lightest, fluffiest cornbread imaginable, alongside these absolutely addictive biscuits. Thank the gods for the tomato salad! Though light, it was a little sinful with tangy ranch dressing and feta cheese.
My companion enjoyed a pork chop—like Wesley describes to Mattie in the show—cooked “carefully and tenderly.” Somewhere between the veggie burrito stuffed with roasted peppers, eggplant, collards, and zucchini and the sweet spoon bread, I realized I was going to need a strategy to get through the rest of the meal. Fresh local strawberries and shortcake were coming, too (which begs the question: Why would you live anywhere else on Earth when we have Lewis Farms here in Wilmington?)
“Here, try these; they’re great.”
I pushed a basket of grit fries toward my companion. They were certainly crispy—I was sure the whole theater could hear me crunching on them. But they were the perfect complement to the sweet honey glaze on the shrimp; combined it felt like eating picnic food inside because of an unexpected rainstorm.
“So how was it?” Jock asked when I came home.
“Sweetheart, you missed a great evening. You would have loved it: The script, the band, and Kai—the young man playing the lead—he was awesome!” I shook my head. “And Denise’s great food! Seriously, you missed out.”
“So are you planning to see it again and take me next week?” he asked.
“I could be persuaded.”
I grinned and kissed him good night.