Entering Bowie Playhouse for Bowie Community Theatre's 50th anniversary season's area premier presentation of "Foxfire" the audience is confronted by a bleak stage set containing a rough cabin façade, its porch displaying a worn rocking chair and nearby an old wagon wheel suggesting a family farm home worked by previous generations.
In the foreground is a tree covered in gnarled bark intended to approximate foxfire, described as "a glowing fungus that clings to rotted wood in the local hills."
Such rustic elements combined to signal perhaps a bleak theater evening ahead. Instead, the production brings touching, if not always uplifting, moments in an earthy, gritty way.
"Foxfire" was an outgrowth of an educational project that began in 1966 as a high school writing assignment for Rabun County, Georgia students to explore historic southern Appalachian culture by sharing tales told by their families. Fifty years later, it continues a mission to explore and preserve the Appalachian heritage.
The tales told by students inspired Susan Cooper and Home Cronyn to pen a play that premiered on Broadway in 1982 with Jessica Tandy in the lead role of Annie Nations.
In Bowie Community Theatre's production the first third of Act 1 includes scenes that seem to lack structure as they tell the story of Annie, a strong-willed, mid-70s age Appalachian widow who frequently converses with the ghost of her cantankerous husband Hector.
Annie ponders the offer of a visiting real estate developer who wants to buy her land to convert into a vacation resort. She has endured hardships including the departure of her sons and remains concerned about her country-singer son Dillard, who has come home with his two children after his wife left him.
By the middle point of this first act — through the artistry of lead actors, we are drawn into their lives and increasingly engaged in their trials.
Honesty, hard-work strength, faith and respect for traditions are the traits that emerge, transforming the show into a poignant drama unlike most current fare.
Compelling as Annie is Kathryn Huston, plainly dressed in her serviceable, shapeless clothes topped by an apron. She delivers a multi-faceted, nuanced portrayal of a stoical farm woman who has endured hardships.
Conversing with dead husband Hector — played by Richard Fiske — she reveals an enduring affection and respect for his trust in the farming traditions of his father and abiding religious faith. Huston's Annie conveys repulsion at Hector's harsh disciplining of son Dillard, but in a flashback recalls the character's youthful delight at being courted by Hector.
Huston's magical transformation from elderly farm woman "back" to a lively girl is amazing.
Fiske makes a memorable Bowie debut as Hector, a lively ghost who was not prepared for his departure as Annie's protector and adviser. Hector is a strong combatant challenging salesmen offering deals, displaying sharp wit and comedic flair, all with a seemingly authentic Appalachian twang.
Most importantly, Fiske has substantial chemistry with Huston, enhancing several poignant moments.
While "Foxfire" can't be classified as a musical, there is live music that certainly enlivens several scenes. Providing this music is the responsibility of John Davis DuRant Jr., cast as son Dillard — who chose a country music career over the family's traditional farming career.
In his acting debut, DuRant proves himself in all acting and singing tasks. He's convincing as his mother's devoted son, and shows impressive ability to sing a key piece — "My Feet Took T'Walkin'" — in different styles, first to a lively beat and later in a reverent hymn-like style at home with his family.
Adding excitement are musicians Donna Korn, Sarah Stepanik, David Stemmle and Eric Small — all of the Stony Lonesome Band.
Another exciting debuting actor is Julie Anne Eller, who is fully credible as honest, spunky and compassionate as Holly Burrell. Also notable is David Chalmers as Doctor, and Bill Brekke plays real estate agent Prince Carpenter with natural ease.
"Foxfire" continues at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie, through Dec. 18. For showtimes and ticket information, call 301-805-0219 or go to bctheatre.com/shows.html.