The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock is like an old Appalachian ballad — like one of the mountain songs captured in the 1930s by Alan Lomax and played by Dylan, full of lust, damnation, magic, and death. It is set in the immediate wake of the Civil War in the mountains of North Carolina, where the war isn't really over and shell-shocked combatants from both sides hide in caves, wondering how to get home.
The small town of Blowing Rock is surrounded by such men, which makes the lady folk nervous — especially since Blowing Rock itself is almost devoid of men, thanks to the war. One woman, however, isn't nervous at all: Elsa Farthing (Lourelene Snedeker) sits grimly on her porch, rifle in hand, waiting to blow the brains out of the next Union sonafabitch she sees. One of them killed her son, right there in the living room.
It was all a misunderstanding brought about by terrible fear and hunger, but that doesn't matter a whit to Farthing. All she wants is revenge and for her elder son, Jacob (Ricky Waugh), a Confederate, to come home. Maternal grief and rage are sufficiently fertile subjects for an infinite number of plays, and this one investigates both in a deft, visceral way that slowly transforms Snedeker into a crazed, haggard monster. But in Bridegroom, she is almost a sideshow. The central drama follows Farthing's daughter, Laura (Susan Cato), who is in love with one of the Union men hiding out in the caves. Elsa Farthing knows all about it, and the Union bastard she'd most like to kill is the one who's captured her daughter's heart: the handsome, black, nameless bridegroom (Donté Bonner).
Laura is blind, but I left the theater wishing fervently she were mute instead. I don't say this nastily. Susan Cato is a capable actress. She has a lovely, pliable face, so taken with each moment of the drama that you can see the thought process reflected in the subtle tensing of the muscles around her jaw. If only she'd shut the hell up. Her faux-Appalachian accent doesn't just stink; it stinks with a vengeance. Her unnatural twang is twice as pronounced as the (mostly serviceable) accents of her costars and more consistent: Almost every vowel she finds, she twists into a long, sustained A.
A botched accent is ordinarily such a small thing, but Florida Stage's production is DOA because of it. Still, there are signs of life all over the place in Bridegroom, and several scenes approach transcendence. The third scene of the evening is one: In it, Laura's best friend, Maizey Hopewell (the adorably plucky Lori Gardner), makes her weekly pilgrimage to the church of Blowing Rock's lone minister, Pastor Burns (Todd Allen Durkin). His astonishingly inept preaching has driven Blowing Rock to apostasy, so Maizey is his lone congregant. His oratory isn't helped by his deep infatuation with Hopewell. To seduce Maizey, he reads an especially pornographic passage from Solomon's Song of Songs, and when he gets to the word breast, he looks nervous enough to toss his cookies right there on the stage. Durkin's mastery of awkwardness is so complete that you can almost feel his mouth go dry as he imagines Hopewell's pert bosoms. After this scene on opening night, the audience erupted in spontaneous applause.
Ricky Waugh and Lourelene Snedeker's scenes are impressive too. You get the sense that Waugh based his character's taciturnity on that of his onstage mum, and the constant clashing of their twin sourpuss sensibilities are remarkably lifelike. Even Cato has a few knock-the-wind-out-of-you moments. She and Bonner have real chemistry, and their courtship scenes are greatly enhanced by a quirk in the script that has suave Bonner doing most of the talking. It's in his character that Bridegroom's folk-song roots are most visible and where playwright Catherine Trieschmann's writing is at its sharpest and strangest. The loquacious bridegroom seduces Laura with his storytelling, spinning fantastic tales about cheap bracelets turning to silver in the guts of a bear and birds turning into lovers. Once, in a frightening, surrealistic dream sequence, the bridegroom himself turns into a bear and tells a story of awful tragedy. This is the one moment when the production communicates precisely what playwright Trieschmann intended, and the brutality of the bridegroom's story feels like a kick in the guts.
Bridegroom is an 8-year-old play that is only now seeing its first professional production. The reasons for the wait are arcane to anyone not in the playwrighting biz, and they are all bullshit. Treischmann's script is excellent, even special, and theatergoers of the world deserve to see Bonner's harrowing transformation from bear to man.
But goddamn, that accent. It bookends even this moment with ridiculousness so profound that it completely, irredeemably destroys what's supposed to be Bridegroom's dominant mood. If Cato can ditch it, those who attend Bridegroom will see an expert production of an important new tragedy that will entertain and shatter in equal measure. If she can't, Bridegroom will play out its run as a hilarious but accidental comedy.