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A dark past, scary present in Susan McCully's new play 'Kerrmoor'

From left, Katie Hileman (Lorna), Erin Hanratty (Kylie), and Susan McCully (Agatha) in "Kerrmoor," a new play by Susan McCully, with a world premiere production from Interrobang and Strand theater companies.
From left, Katie Hileman (Lorna), Erin Hanratty (Kylie), and Susan McCully (Agatha) in "Kerrmoor," a new play by Susan McCully, with a world premiere production from Interrobang and Strand theater companies. (Kiirstn Pagan)

If Pennsylvania's portion of the Appalachian region conjures images of beautifully rugged countryside sparsely populated by decent, salt-of-the-earth folks, a new play by a woman who hails from that area may give you a bit of a jolt.

In "Kerrmoor," receiving its world premiere at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in a stylish co-production by the Interrobang and Strand theater companies, Susan McCully opens a Stephen King-ish window into a forbidding world. In the program book, the playwright describes a work "born of a conflict deep in my heart" and asks: "How can I both adore and abhor my ancestral home?"

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The dark, brooding play, offered as part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival and Charm City Fringe, reflects McCully's longtime effort "to tell the awful truth about the racist and sexist culture that shaped me — the twisted, fearful thinking born of prideful insularity."

That harsh assessment also includes a reference to "a certain kind of rural American mythology" that can take a toll on those who buy into it. "Kerrmoor" offers a provocative version of such mythology.

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Having a sense of what McCully is up to does not necessarily guarantee an easy time negotiating the play's layers. The text, especially early on, is sparse, not to mention stingy with the exposition.

Even by the end, after much gets revealed, you may find yourself wanting, as I did, just a little more in the way of development (and maybe a little less repetition of some details). Lots of provocative ideas are in the air; not all of them get enough focus. And the horror genre touches don't always click neatly into place.

Still, the play exerts a steady pull as it unfolds, painting a creepy portrait of that "prideful insularity." The folks in the fictional Kerrmoor clutch onto their history, told in "The Ballad of Mona Kerr," which weaves continually through the play.

It's the story of how an Ulster Scots couple, "old man Kerr" and his wife Mona McCauley, emigrated a few hundred years ago and carved out a living space in a hollow that grew into a town. How, one night, "savage bears" attacked, leaving men "gutted and splayed."

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And how, most significantly, Mona's daughter ended up "full ripe with a black bear from a bite to the hip. As the bear growed dark inside her, Kerrmoor's cares they growed too, till Mona cut the bear out, makin' all pure and true."

That these "savage" bears also engaged in "scalpin'" suggests that the invaders never actually came from the animal kingdom, of course, and that what Kerrmoor residents have ever since been deathly afraid of was mingling between their kind and any form of outsider. They're willing, it seems, to pursue the ultimate sacrifice when required to keep Kerrmoor "pure and true."

Bit by bit, references to the environment enter the dialogue (battles loom over gas and mineral rights), along with worries about other races or creeds creeping into the area. In this community, everyone and everything is suspect, making it all the more essential to keep tradition alive — and someone dead, every now and then.

The three-member cast, directed by Eve Muson, includes McCully. She takes the role of Agatha, a woman who once escaped the clutches of Kerrmoor, but is lured back in time for the sacred, brutal ritual. The playwright's acting can be stiff, but is very effective in the closing scene, when tenderness and terror collide.

As Agatha's abandoned daughter, Lorna, who finds herself in a position to ease "Kerrmoor's cares," Katie Hileman is a standout, nimbly negotiating the role's mood swings. And Erin Hanratty captures the mix of naivete, worry and pride in Lorna's soothsaying-prone sister, Kylie.

Gregg Schraven's set, deftly lit by Adam Mendelson, conveys the walled mentality of Kerrmoor. The production also gains greatly in suspenseful atmosphere from Linda Dusman's vivid music and Jeffrey Dorfman's sound design.

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