When discussions were in progress for the 2018-19 Triad Stage season, founding artistic director Preston Lane realized there was something missing from the lineup: a distinctly Southern play.
What sprang to mind was a work produced for the Alabama Shakespeare Festival by playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, who had written about two deep-rooted and connected Southern traditions — racing and bootlegging.
“We’re gonna do it!” Lane recalled saying.
Boy, are we glad he did. “White Lightning,” directed by Sarah Hankins, is a 200-proof shot of Southern moonshining/racing life pre-1950 — the wild years. And it is an exhilarating ride.
“White Lightning,” named for that crystal clear homemade whiskey, is a richly textured love story — love between a young hunk and the sport of racing in its infancy, between said hunk and a certain independent woman, and love for a ’39 Ford that is the star of the show.
The 1939 Ford coupe was a piece of sculpture in its own day with its shapely body, generous headlights and spacious rear-end with split window. But the builders of this life-sized prop (scenic designer Natalie Hart and properties master Eric Hart) take this classic car to a whole new sculptural level. It is she who makes her sultry entrance first, moving down a red dirt road straight, it seems, from heaven; she whose curves and lines seduce every character except the one woman who sees her danger; she who inspires, protects and propels the leading man in his quest to be the fastest; and she who commands attention from characters and audience alike.
We heart this car and the Harts who built it. Not to say the car steals the show, but how do you compete with an inanimate object that drives itself and seems to live and breathe and draws murmurs from the audience with every turn and magical movement?
But on to the human actors.
David Bowen (Triad Stage debut) is Avery, a still-wet-behind-the-ears war vet and son of the South who will do anything it takes to achieve his dream. Bowen transforms from tentative runner to cocky racer relatively flawlessly even though this transition is tricky territory.
If there were ever a role better suited for Triad Stage vet Carroll Michael Johnson, I have not seen it. The character of corrupt revenuer Chester fits him like a racing glove and his natural twang (honed in Triad Stage hits such as “Beautiful Star”) fills the theater like moonshine fills a Mason jar. It’s as pitch-perfect as it gets.
That perfect Southern accent isn’t as easy as it might seem to us Southerners. An accidentally pronounced “g” on the end of a verb throws off a line.
Triad Stage favorite Michael Tourek has some John Goodman-type shoes to fill as the moonshine runners-cum-garage owner whose path takes the opposite trajectory of Avery.
Erin Schmidt (last seen at Triad Stage in “The Member of the Wedding”) is Dixie James, the ambitious female who nevertheless falls for Avery, a man who reminds her of her less-than-perfect father. Schmidt is fierce in this otherwise all-male cast and has a grace that is unforced and completely believable.
But it is the character with the least lines who says the most about this story of dashed dreams and hard-fought fulfillment. And that is Stanton Nash as Mutt, who, at first, adds humor with his one-liners, and, lastly, sums up the play’s themes with his impassioned speech.
A nod to the music and sound effects that allowed the audience inside the race track. The light from above can be described only as spectacular. Now that’s a Southern chandelier.