For six days, they made forbidden love in cut-rate hotels, a Gideon bible in each bedside drawer, but on the seventh they went down to the river and there consummated their rapid descent into madness. Such is the fate of the titular character and her clandestine amour in The Passion of Teresa Rae King, which debuted at Triad Stage last weekend and runs through May 20.
Local playwright and director Preston Lane debuted his latest work in a long-running, non-linear series set in Hawboro, a fictional small town in North Carolina where a prison provides jobs now that industry skipped town and misogyny hangs heavy in the air like humidity before a frightful summer rainstorm.
Fourth wall-breaking narration from detective Suzanne Oliver, played by Sarah Hankins, provides new audiences with the ins-and-outs of Hawboro’s geography and pieces together a murder mystery all too close to home. From the jump, an onstage production crew donning khaki, dark polos and baseball caps and equipped with giant studio-grade cameras circle around Oliver.
Teresa Rae wouldn’t be the uniquely engaging experience it is without inventive and daring production aspects. The Triad Stage crew built a pool simulating a riverbed into the stage’s skeleton and blunt shifts in lighting cultivate a curious fusion of high art and pulp fiction. Three massive screens revealing different angles of action loom above the stage in a U-shape so that all audience members experience technically unique perspectives. Live-action footage from the stage displayed on the screens is often overlaid with either consistent imagery — such as a photograph of the Kings’ humble home and, later, disturbing black-and-white montages featuring cast members’ menacing faces and storm imagery. Guerilla-style shooting cues associations with “trash” television reality shows a la “Cops.”
In the midst of symbols and motifs layered thicker than raw honey, Lane leaves ample room for the audience to project onto the characters in his salacious thriller, particularly in the case of Teresa Rae King, who remains utterly silent throughout the first third of the performance, shuffling about her mother-in-law’s hair salon or making lemonade from fresh lemons. She’s a vision of the all-American girl next door: blonde, thin, but with a dark twist. Her first utterance is a declaration of her willingness to kill another person if necessary, in response to Levon Lankford, a buff ex-con who just got back to town. He serves as a stark foil to Teresa Rae’s husband, Carter King, a man grossly stunted in perpetual boyhood. He’s wholly dependent upon his wife and mother, Mamie, whose down-home Southern turns of phrase are more responsible for the play’s strong sense of place than any scenery. Perhaps more than any other character, she relays Hawboro as Everytown, USA, particularly given her memory of times past. At present, her once idyllic (or presently romanticized) hometown is dank with the putrid stench of hopelessness, a testament to the toxicity of stagnancy and an example of how people’s idleness can combust into rage.[pullquote]The Passion of Teresa Rae King runs through May 20. Learn more at triadstage.org[/pullquote]
“There is something so important about telling the stories of our region,” Lane, also the founding artistic director of Triad Stage, says.
Lane is of “old Appalachian stock,” as he puts it, and grew up in the mountains near Boone.
“Hawboro’s not Greensboro, but it’s like towns around here,” he says. “It’s the stories of who we are and some of those are very political, some not. [In these plays,] there’s constant reference to the history of Hawboro and a building up of the families in it so that we recognize that world in ways that we can then use the theater to think about our own lives and our own communities in new ways.”
That is what is powerful about Teresa Rae. It’s not about moralizing or substance abuse, religion or politics — it’s about us, and our animal natures lurking just below the surface.