by Anthony Harrison
Brenda Schleunes, founder of Touring Theatre of North Carolina, addressed the audience of about 50 huddled close in the Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro before the opening performance on May 1.
“Tonight, we’re celebrating local,” Schleunes stated.
And that they did. Local Produce is a trio of one-act monologues written by three local writers, performed by three local actors and helmed by three local directors. They’re very different stories featuring very different people, but they all benefit from an encapsulating universality while still being firmly ensconced in Southern flavor and tone.
Plum Creek, written by Alice Hodgkins and directed by Camilla Millican, tells the story of Nicky Young (played by Victoria Singleton), a young woman with an admiration for kids’ books.
Nicky may come off as a little simple, considering she’s writing a rambling letter to the director of circulation for her local library and reading it aloud in her yokel accent, scrawny and dressed in a slapdash outfit of oversized gray flannel shirt, white tank and purple denim. But she’s a startlingly complex character: Despite her rube-like appearance and simple vocabulary, she has an inquisitive, imaginative mind that is compounded by her childlike enthusiasm for the world of words.
“I feel like Nicky is so innocent, all while trying to be mature at the same time,” Singleton said following the performance.
Nicky raves over children’s literature like Goodnight Moon, Amelia Bedelia, Great Day for Up! and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, from which the play derives its name. But she also reveals bits and pieces of her life — her love for her son, fights with her drunken ex, the scorn she gets from her coworkers for simply reading.
“I don’t want you to think I don’t respect stories,” she writes to the director after admitting to signing her borrowed copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek. “I love ’em more than anything.”
Singleton sparkles onstage.
So does Laurine Concutelli in the next piece, Produce, written by Anne Barnhill and directed by Donna Baldwin Bradby.
Concutelli plays Lettyce — pronounced not “let-TEESE,” as one may think, but just like the leafy green — a middle-aged housewife annoyed with her boorish, close-minded husband.
Lettyce’s life takes a drastic left turn when she runs into a short man from the Indian subcontinent she dubs the “Little Brown Man.” He introduces Lettyce to a world of foreign flavors, filling her grocery cart with exotic fruits and vegetables.
“Mangoes! Starfruit! Papayas! Fresh figs!” Lettyce marvels at the unfamiliar produce with the wide-eyed wonder Nicky expresses for kids’ literature.
Before long, the undertones of sexual lust and its connection with food come to the forefront, as Lettyce dreams night and day of the Little Brown Man, or as he calls himself in one of her dreams, the “Lover of Women.”
Concutelli plays Lettyce with striking sophistication. Her delivery of the second-person monologue kicked off with her speaking practically in confidence, like she was a mother hen gossiping to women in the congregation hall of First Baptist Church. But as the story progresses, Concutelli portrays Lettyce’s growing neuroticism and erotic desire with striking intensity, until she lets her hair down — literally.
Hopeful and satisfied, Lettyce concludes, “The Lover of Women would fix everything.”
After the show, a woman told Concutelli: “I’ll never look at a Piggly Wiggly the same way ever again.”
The final monologue is unique in that it stars the writer.
Kevin Varner submitted the autobiographical Social Dancing, a touching account of how dancing affected his life, directed by Stephen Gee.
Varner weaves anecdotes about his mother, his older sister Kim, the group Blondie, elementary school and other recollections from growing up in North Carolina together into a coming-of-age story with remarkable poignancy.
The vein driving the action, though, is obviously dance.
“My future had literally been planned from step to shuffle-ball change,” Kevin says after his mother discovered his interest in dancing.
The climax comes when the fifth-grade Kevin attends the Valentine’s Dance. He attends with his irreverent friend Cookie, whom Kevin impersonates hilariously.
“The gym looks like it’s coated in Pepto-Bismol,” Kevin says, in Cookie’s deadpan voice, disdainful and clutching invisible punch.
But the big moment comes when Carmen Christopher, the princess of the school, asks him to dance with her for the dance competition. They dance the two-step and the hustle, all to Blondie’s cover of “The Tide is High,” Varner continuing delivering the monologue while showing off his dancing chops.
The story concludes with Kevin’s first dance with a man in a gay bar in Boston. There were dropped hints throughout that Kevin was gay — young Kevin’s curiosity over Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a huge wink — but Varner’s admission and final anecdote stood as a perfect culmination of an affecting tale of self-confidence and realization.
As an added surprise after the show, Varner could be seen hugging a woman and introducing her.
“This is Carmen Christopher!” he exclaimed.
She was real, flesh and blood, right there in the Crown for her friend’s debut.
But no matter if any of the three plays was fact or fiction, each of the stories presented in Local Produce are filled with truth.