by Ed Malin · May 8, 2014
Over the course of the last year, Retro Productions has workshopped An Appeal To The Woman Of The House, Christie Perfetti Williams's compelling new play about the Civil Right Movement. Yes, this is a new play and yes it is a fictional exploration of the difficulties encountered by Freedom Riders who in the early 1960s ventured into the segregated Deep South to advocate for equal voting rights. Retro Productions excels yet again with this play, only their second production of new work.
It is late at night in an Alabama farmhouse just over the state line from Tennessee. Rose Walker (Heather Cunningham) hears an urgent request from outside for shelter. She convinces her anxious, shotgun-toting husband, Gideon (Ric Sechrest) that the four out-of-towners should be allowed to stay. The visitors are White and Black activists, and have been removed from an interstate bus at the state line, jailed, beaten, and told to keep walking down the road. In these volatile times, these progressives might be killed for intruding into KKK territory. Artie from Ohio (Ben Schnickel) has a bloodied face but got through the jail episode by singing protest songs. Claire from Newark, NJ (Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy) has come to love Artie but must conceal it because they are of different races. Annabelle from Nashville (Laura Killeen) is the wholesome Southern type who really wins the Walkers' hearts. David from Louisiana (Daryl Lathon) resists Gideon's attempts to treat him like an animal. As the Walkers have no telephone, Gideon drives Artie to the nearest gas station so he can phone a sympathetic friend, Susan Katz (Elise Rovinsky) to rescue them and get them out of his hair.
As the night continues, the difficulty of Gideon's position becomes clear. His distant father, Old Man Skinner (James M. Armstrong) has already heard Gideon visited the gas station with a stranger, and would like the Walkers to hand over any visitors to an eager mob. Half-brother Russell (John Graham) sees shooting marauders of other races as a matter of course. Gideon does his best to protect the Freedom Riders, hopefully until they can escape at daybreak. As they put it, "It's 7 AM so the bigots will all be in church." In the end, Gideon, Artie, and David come to respect each other. Procuring some beers from an underground establishment in this dry town helps the men bond.
This is a beautiful story, eerily brought to life by director DeLisa White. The somewhat barbaric behavior of the townspeople has its parallel in the disagreements of the infertile couple, Rose and Gideon. Several times, someone asks, "is it broken?" After the radio gets fixed, there is hope for family life to improve, and who knows, someday there may be racial equality. There is also a memorable moment when Susan, who is part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, tells Gideon that even though he is White and male, one day this struggle will be about him, too. Thus, the play is not just about the 1960s but shows us the constant need to stand up for human rights. Indeed, Rose's first impression of the visitors comes from the church songs they are singing on the porch, and they become aware that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same values. The show ends with the cast singing a moving song about Freedom Riders.
Ron Naverson's set is indeed a Home Sweet Home, tastefully showing us the good old days on the verge of change. Jeanette Aultz's costumes are very much of the time, too, especially the ties and hats. Scot Gianelli's lighting is essential to the pace of this all-night drama. The show's dialect coach, Charley Layton, has definitely brought out the diversity in the cast. Dramaturg Dillon Slagle has also worked on the show for a long time to add the kind of historical accuracy which might make you think this is a recreation of a true story. I like that the action is bookended by two big Patsy Cline hits: "I Fall To Pieces" and "Walkin' After Midnight".