Love grows among coal-mining poverty in Venus Theatre's 'Claudie Hukill'

"Claudie Hukill," on stage at Venus Theatre on C Street through Dec. 23, is a play about a poor family, struggling to survive hard economic times and personal tragedies in a West Virginia mining town.

Set in 1972, the play is filled with generational, environmental, social, moral and class conflicts, centered around the main character and the play's namesake, Claudie Hukill. Although Claudie, a coal miner and town hero, is never seen, his presence is felt throughout the play as the drama surrounding his disappearance unfolds and escalates to a powerful ending.

The action takes place mainly in the living room of the Hukill's home, where Claudie's blind mother, Clara, lives with his wife, Pearlie, and daughter, Kit. The set evokes poverty in the sparsely furnished living room, with a rocking chair for Clara and a well-worn lounger, and a lamp or two. There's also a magazine rack, filled with Life magazines from 1972, when the Vietnam War was the major story of the day and is reflected on the covers.

Set designer Amy Rhodes, no stranger to Venus Theatre, added other era touches with a black wall-mounted telephone that the characters dial manually. There's also a blackboard beside it for messages and, as rarely seen today, a white screen door that characters use often as they enter and exit the home, or stand in front of it, anxiously looking for any sign of Claudie.

Prior to his disappearance, Claudie hasn't worked in a year. That's mainly because the heroic acts he performed during a mining cave-in left him unable to do the lifting work in the mine required. At the opening of the play, his family is worried because he's been acting strangely and periodically disappearing for days at a time. Only his 11-year-old daughter Kit, who's very close to her father, seems to understand.

Rebecca Korn, with many local theater credits under her belt, plays the role of Kit well. Dressed throughout in faded overalls, with neck-length scraggly hair, Korn's sad but direct facial expressions and the character's honesty and compassion are inspiring.

"Don't worry about saying the wrong things. We know we're poor," she says to her visiting uncle's rich wife, Tierney, who in a telephone call tells her mother that the Hukill's are not Martha's Vineyard type of people.

Tierney is married to Claudie's brother, Rob, a reporter in Boston. Rob and Claudie have not spoken in eight years. Rob, played with smooth timing and believability by Christopher Williams, thinks he's always lived in Claudie's shadow, in spite of his professional success as a journalist. He's returned home to verify the sources in a series of stories the local newspaper editor has written on the mining industry. Rob's paper plans to run and submit the series for a Pulitzer Prize. Local editor Sam Burton, a family friend, is played by Rick Coleman, a native of Wheeling, W.Va., who grew up with the production's playwright Sean O'Leary.

Coleman has the look of an old-school newspaperman and definitely the accent of someone who grew up in a West Virginia hollow, but his stage presence and timing is not as good as the rest of the cast. At times he seems to be reciting the lines instead of being conversational and interactive in delivering his lines. However, when he reveals a major surprise near the end of the play, he is more believable and seems moved by the secret he discloses.

As dysfunctional as the Hukills appear at times, there's a lot of love wrapped up in their rundown shack. They don't always show it in demonstrable ways, but in their actions. Kit and her mother, Pearl, take turns lovingly combing the hair of Claudie's blind mother, helping her get dressed and walk around when she needs to go somewhere. Alyssa Sanders' talent is obvious in her portrayal of Pearl, and her expressions are convincing as she claims the stage in family exchanges and highly emotional scenes.

Harlie Sponaugle, who's had ensemble roles at the Kennedy Center, is just as credible in her role as Claudie's mom, Clara. Even before she picks up her cane or anyone mentions that she is blind, it is obvious that Clara can't see.

Clara's blindness, the family's sad economic circumstances and their concern about Claudie dominate the play, but it does have its uplifting and lighter moments. Clara even jokes about her blindness and the fact that they are a poor family on food stamps.

"If the Lord don't give me money, he give me blindness so I won't notice," she said with a laugh.

In addition to having a strong cast, "Claudie Hukill," directed by Venus Theatre owner Deb Randall, also comes to life through sound effects. Throughout the play, the heavy rains that threaten to flood areas of the town are often heard. The sound effects of the characters going to various destinations are also done well, with car doors opening and closing, vehicle engine sounds approaching and leaving and gravel sounds of characters heard as they walk up to the screen door.

All ingredients that, coupled with good acting and a strong story line, make for great theater.

Venus Theatre is at 21 C St. Shows are Thursdays through Sundays, and continue through Dec. 23. For tickets, go to the online box office, or call 202-236-4078.

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