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NOURISHING THE SPIRIT: Wiley Cash’s short story is adapted for the stage in ‘The Kudzu Queen’

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Cassie Dee gets wrapped up in ‘The Kudzu Queen’ at TheatreNOW.

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In a land where bacon is king, kudzu reigns as queen for a few hours each Friday and Saturday night through June 4 at TheaterNOW. “The Kudzu Queen” marks another fine effort in a series designed to bring work of local authors to the stage. This time local writer (and encore contributor) Gwenyfar Rohler adapts a script from North Carolina writer and NY Times best-selling author, Wiley Cash. Cash’s short story “Grenadine” has been transformed into “The Kudzu Queen.”

ROCKING ENSEMBLE: (l. to r.) Mike Thompson, Joe Basquill, Skip Maloney, Arianna Tysinger, Erin Hunter (Grenadine), Kendall Walker and Marie Chonko in ‘The Kudzu Queen.’  Photo by Zach Hanner

ROCKING ENSEMBLE: (l. to r.) Mike Thompson, Joe Basquill, Skip Maloney, Arianna Tysinger, Erin Hunter (Grenadine), Kendall Walker and Marie Chonko in ‘The Kudzu Queen.’ Photo by Zach Hanner

First of all, kudos to Rohler. Transforming a seven-page short story into an evening of entertainment—without the help of Ironman and lengthy, sparsely worded battle sequences—is no easy task. Fortunately, she had a compelling story springing from relatable characters, alongside the abilities and experience of director Beth Swindell, a fine cast and a multi-media equipped venue of TheaterNOW.

Cash’s story begins in 1968, where single mother Grenadine Purdy (Erin Hunter) runs a roadside kudzu stand that also is one source of tension between her and her daughter, June (Hunter Wyatt/Arriana Tysinger). Much of the tale is set in 1942, the year kudzu came to Enoree, SC, and Grenadine was chosen as the town’s Kudzu Queen. Erin Hunter captures the essence of mother-daughter conflicts in a difficult task of portraying a single mother doing her best in the ‘60s—plus as daughter to a single mother doing her best in the ‘40s.

Kudzu ties together the two eras. Woven into the tale is a bit of backstory about the rise of kudzu in the South. Rather than strangle the characters, the story of kudzu provides roots for characters to develop and mature gracefully. The use of kudzu strikes the audience, though not too hard: Although our challenges and choices today may seem modern and so unique to us, they are rooted in and common to the struggles of our parents and previous generations.

One of the most gratifying elements of the evening is seeing the commitment of the performers to the story. Beth Swindell should be credited for putting together a generally well-cast ensemble.

Playing the Enoree mayor is Mike Thompson, who demonstrates both joviality and naiveté as he attempts to help his local community—only to be stifled by snake-oil salesman Channing Cope (Skip Maloney). I’m sure small-town mayors across the country can relate. He hears about the wonders of kudzu on the radio and makes an effort to bring this miracle weed to his town.

As Cope, Skip Maloney transforms from what seems to be an eccentric but apparently well-meaning radio personality (“The Front Porch Farmer”) into a two-bit salesman. He hawks the miracle plant to farm communities ravaged by weather and war.

As Grenadine’s young love interest, Natty Pitts, Joe Basquill steals the audition scene he is supposed to steal—and a few others as well. His energy and earnestness can’t help but draw the eye.

Grenadine’s momma (Marie Chonko) enters delightfully big and grows from there. She manages to be overprotective, loud and likable throughout the evening.

The always graceful Kendall Walker and talented Hunter Wyatt each find their characters’ moments organically and with each other. In fact, the more the ensemble interacts, the more entertaining the show becomes.

The background footage of a “Front Porch Farmer” broadcast provides generally effective integration of media. The lengthy president’s speech provides context. However, I would have liked to see more of the Enoree townspeople together, giving more moments of the ensemble to laugh and cry with each other.

Another highlight of the show comes in  the presence of author Wiley Cash. Cash is primarily a novelist and the appreciation he showed toward seeing his story brought to life was genuine. It’s a nice preview of how he’ll feel when the option on one of his novels is picked up and he sees his work on the big screen.

Chef Denise Gordon provides a mostly meatless menu to accompany the performance nicely. The vegetarian lasagna is substantive, yet not too heavy. Other menu options include a shrimp-burger and pecan-encrusted chicken. (Deciding what to eat is always one of the more difficult choices when attending a TheaterNOW production.)

Overall, “The Kudzu Queen” provides a worthwhile evening of entertainment that’s not too heavy and nourishes the spirit. Additionally, with each ticket purchased, $1 will benefit the Cape Fear Literacy Council.

The Kudzu Queen
May 20-June 4,
Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m.
19 S. 10th St.
Tickets: $37 w/dinner; $21 show only; $17 for mezzanine

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