LIKE KISSING MOONLIGHTby Stacey Upton Bracey
Mesquite Arts Theatre
Directed by Stacey Upton Bracey
Stage Manager – Zeppelin Hartley
Fight Choreographer – Dave Westbrook
Set Design – Kevin Velasquez
Properties Design – Baxter Chaney
Lighting & Sound Design – Erika Tate Basham
Costume Design – Addam Vigil
Bethany Brown - BERRY LEE
David Colville - DALE LEE
Jacque Marshall - MONICA LEE
Hannah Beltran - JUNE NAVE
Vianey Vargas - JEM NAVE
Bryn Hottman - CRYSTAL GRANT
Lloyd Webb - PASTOR BOB
Audrey Medrano - EUPHAZINE LINDSOR
Dennis H. Gullion - TALTON DEMEREST
Reviewed Performance: 6/11/2022
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
This was true in 1800s Russia with families like the Prozorovs and the Ranevskys and Gayevs, subjects of two of Anton Chekhov’s plays, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. These plays have been adapted for stage and screen and become an inspiration for many others. The stories are familiar, though the language is foreign.
Playwright Stacey Upton Bracey calls her to play, Like Kissing Moonlight, a “mashup” of these plays. Like Chekhov’s families, the Lee family, Berry, Dale, and Monica are siblings dealing with similar circumstances in their own Appalachian homestead. There are small hints of each Chekhov play in this story, but the language is American, and the sensibilities are Blue Ridge.
Like Kissing Moonlight, written and directed by Bracey, is playing for a short run by Mesquite Arts Theatre at the Arts Center in Mesquite.
I love tales that show tragedies we experience but tell the truth about how we manage them. We laugh through them, often while we’re crying. We look for blame and find it within. This story was built on a family tragedy and impending disaster, yet it was the humor and love we remember.
To start, while there are naturally funny lines for every character, three were specifically comic relief. Crystal Grant, played by Bryn Hottman, is an iconic hot yokel who’s inserted herself into the family through the brother, Dale. She has no history with the family and is the polar opposite of their sensibilities. Hottman showed a perfect look, young, cute, short, and bubbly with a high-pitch ditzy voice, and created the epitome of someone out of touch with how others perceive her. Crystal’s attempts to take over the family by making dinners and commenting on everything, and their exasperated responses to her, provided constant humor. Hottman’s commitment to Crystal’s irritancies made her that much funnier. While we all cringed at her lines, we laughed at how they landed.
Euphazine Lindsor (what a fabulous character name!), played with an equal commitment by Audrey Medrano, is the long-time midwife in the county. She knows secrets. She’s a trusted friend of the family, though her enlightened connection with the spirits makes people nervous. Medrano’s portrayal of this Hispanic ‘medical’ woman gave Euphazine the gravity to get into everyone’s lies. And when someone pushed Euphazine into a corner, such as her confrontation with Crystal, we got to see a great comic pratfall scene inject the theater with huge energy. Medrano used her physical strength and forceful voice with a strong Hispanic accent to regularly dress down the others, shocking everyone, especially a howling audience.
It’s hard in such a talented cast where everyone buys into the author’s story and uses their talents to bring that to life to call out someone. But I’d say Dennis H. Gullion fell into that category. As Talton Demerest, he showed a comic performance that brought the audience to a new level in every scene he was in. Talton is collaborating with Dale Lee to sell the family’s orchard. I identified his character in his first appearance as a snake-oil salesman or used car salesman. Gullion did give off that vibe, with a disheveled look, vacuous eyes, and conversational style, not quite looking at someone, but still addressing them as if he is their best friend. But he also has secrets, one of which is being sweet on Berry Lee. To say that every time Gullion spoke, and even when he was silently watching others speak, his character was hilarious just to see, even lines that were deadly serious in Talton’s view. In the end, Talton shows his surprising character and motivation. Gullion deserves a Tony Award for Best Comedic Actor in an Appalachian tragedy.
Pastor Bob, played by Lloyd Webb, is a stalwart, a long-time friend of the Lee family, and a man of God. Webb could be a preacher himself, with the look and personal atmosphere of such a character. His vocal quality sounds like one, strong and sure. Pastor Bob advises faith through tragedy, ready for a pronouncement of meaning when needed. But he also is the foil to Euphazine’s other-worldly views of the afterlife, as well as some of the family’s beliefs about ghostly encounters. He too is capable of being blind to and shocked by community perceptions and this allowed Webb to show how a man of faith might face his own crisis of conscience.
Two characters are entwined and provide an alternative view of the family. June Nave is a young cousin orphaned by an accident. Hannah Beltran played the teenager with archetypal angry teen energy, chaffing at every suggestion that June should participate in family events. But we also saw a transformation to a different personality, making June a different character than what we judged in the beginning. Part of June’s role is to reveal her brother, Jem Nave, who died in the accident but hasn’t moved on. Played by Vianey Vargas, Jem occupies the house and orchards, but only June can interact with him. He implores her to act, becoming her advisor. Vargas moves around the stage and character action with ease, as if invisible. Euphazine can feel him. Others get sensations about him. But only June sees him. Together these young actors created an important youthful perspective on these events, counter to the old folks, and showed how a story could resolve to a better ending, one that shows life goes on.
It should be noted that in Chekhov’s time, the spirit of the dead and people who interacted with them was common. It’s part of the plays that influenced this story. It’s been common for eons. In fact, it seems Appalachian culture retains a sense of an indescribable spiritual belief through their connection to their lands and the heritage of the Cherokee people, themselves very spiritual, who populated the lands before settlers arrived. There’s a strong bible belt vibe in the mountains today, but long before colonists appeared, spirits thrived. Some say they’re still there. I suspect this author found that sensibility in her time there.
To connect this story to Chekhov’s plays, three main characters need to be described.
Siblings, Berry, Dale, and Monica Lee are the legacy of a great land enterprise and homestead from the earliest days of the settlers. Though their mother lies unseen in another room, it’s clear they’ve had different experiences of this place, and vastly different memories, and so they have different opinions about what to do with it. That’s the conflict, the same as Chekhov’s orchard story. It’s not supportable in today’s economy. Change is needed.
Berry is the youngest, a stalwart who stayed home to care for mom and keep the house alive. Played by Bethany Brown, Berry is tired of having to “do it all” while the others are off enjoying life. She runs the house through sheer will and rejects anyone who disrupts that balance. Brown allowed her Berry to range across many levels of frustration and resentment as the story took turns and secrets leaked out. Berry is practical, trying to keep the status quo. But Brown gets to play out Berry’s anger at Berry’s siblings, and everyone else at times, even as they reveal truths that shock her. But, though youngest, she has a lot of clout in the care of their mother and those questions about the orchard’s own secrets.
Berry’s main target is Dale, her older brother, who manages the orchards. David Colville plays this big oaf of a man who’s tied to the land at the roots. He’s salt-o-the-earth, though a little gullible. But Colville shows through his pleadings that he only wants what he thinks is best for the family. Dale’s job of keeping the property productive keeps him in the fields, so when he appears, Berry’s tension rises. It seems this has been true for a while. Colville pushed the main throughline of the orchard story as Dale wants to sell the orchards. He has to convince his siblings. Dale pursues this objective constantly. Most of his lines were funny folksy sayings. It’s difficult for actors to let comic lines flow without forcing them. In this performance, we found ourselves laughing at Dale as much as the three comic reliefs, but for different reasons. Colville delivered those lines with total conviction.
Monica Lee, played by Jacque Marshall, has been gone for 10-years and only returned because of her mother’s crisis. Like Olga in Three Sisters and a bit of Madame Lyubov in Cherry Orchard, she carries the long legacy of the family back to its glory days. An LA resident of some means, she has the authority to speak for her mother. Though she’s been gone, which makes her a target for Berry and a possible ally for Dale, she also carries original childhood memories for her young siblings. Marshall created a woman of means and substance who could show Monica’s disdain for everybody, especially Crystal, question how things have been overseen while she was gone and provide a perspective from beyond the mountains. Her place in the family gives her important approval about Dale’s proposals and revelations, but she ties the family together by seeking consensus rather than pronouncing edicts. Marshall’s demeanor showed an even-handedness in Monica’s business discussions. Even in physical conflicts, Marshall modeled Monica’s substance and credibility.
This story played out in a setting that showed the kitchen, main living room, hallway to back bedrooms, and a piece of orchard out the back screen door. The set designed by Kevin Velasquez provided easy movement across playing areas with enough realism to make it look like an old farmhouse. The set was filled with signs of life by Props Designer, Baxter Chaney, including old furniture, kitchen appliances, dishes, and real food, edible and smelling good, all signs of real life. This stage was lit by Lighting Designer, Erika Tate Basham, who also provided a subtle soundtrack of Appalachian music. Lighting focused our attention on playing areas through bright and dim lighting. We didn’t see the moon, but we felt it over our backs like one of the spirits that filled the land.
These designers were led by author and director Bracey. A bit of realism mixed with a little impressionism came through choices made by the team to create a strong, felt atmosphere that supported the actor’s character choices. Though this theater is a cold space made for many different arts possibilities, the design choices by this team transported actors and audience right into that Appalachian culture written in the playbill notes and her own online blogs. Anyone who’s spent time in the clear night air in the country knows that feeling of seeing the stars so close you could grab one and a moon so near you could walk over and kiss it. It’s a great place for a story like this to unfold.
Fight Choreographer, Dave Westbrook, provided training and guidance for fight scenes, though they were more like cat fights, but still potentially dangerous. Again, no secrets are revealed here. Go see ‘em. You’ll die laughing.
Finally, costumes ran the gamut from farm wear to household lounge clothing to big city and small-town suits, to the well-garbed rebel teenager. Costumer Addam Vigil made each actor realistically appear like their character and added to the director’s vision of how to tell this story.
Anton Chekhov’s magical elixir of storytelling was creating stories common to all Russians, not just the Tsar. The stories are found around the world in many variations. He showed how people live in the country rather than in palaces and government buildings, as most writers before him did. The Lee family is like yours and mine. Their problems are ours and how they tried to deal with their crises is familiar to our own. This story is our shared experience.
Like Kissing Moonlight is worth a drive to Mesquite to enjoy. But if you’re in Mesquite? You got no excuse. It’s right there at the Arts Center. It’s great entertainment, but you might also discover things that remind you of someone you know.
Mesquite Arts Theatre, Arts Center, 1527 N. Galloway Ave., Mesquite, TX. 75149.
Plays through June 26
Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:30pm
Adults: $18, Seniors/Students: $15, Children (Under 12): $10
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://mesquiteartstheatre.org