The latest play to emerge from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers Project is a warm, witty, well-made comedy that delighted an audience deeply familiar with its cast of Deep South characters, a gossiping gaggle of Episcopal eccentrics. Winner of a Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, John MacNicholas’ lightweight, traditional and thoroughly entertaining play has all of the adroit charm of a classic Southern comedy of 50 years ago. It looks like a bankable property — at least for any theater located south of the Mason-Dixon line.
“The Moving of Lilla Barton” concerns the attempts of the lay leadership of an Alabama church to evict the widow of a deceased minister from the rectory they once both occupied. Unhappily for the vestry, this far-from-merry widow refuses to budge, even though the new rector is due any day. Most of the action focuses on the brow-beating and infighting of the church leaders, who find themselves stuck in a spiritual and practical quandary: The group includes a pushy realtor (Rose Stockton) who wants the depressed woman out, a decent Southern gentleman (Barry Boys) who thinks she should be allowed to stay, and an ex-Yankee newspaper editor (Greg Thornton) who cannot even begin to understand these mysterious Southern ways.
Added into the comic mix is the presiding bishop (Roger Forbes), a well-meaning soul who finds himself personally embattled because he once wanted to marry the now-distraught widow.
The evening was frequently interrupted by gales of laughter and applause from an engrossed audience. Although one had the sense that this easy crowd was mainly enjoying watching the politics of their own Alabama churches lampooned onstage by Montgomery-based classical actors who have become local celebrities, this is still a quite extraordinarily funny script, full of crackling one-liners and droll sarcasm.
MacNicholas (also the author of “Deja Vu,””Crossings” and “Dumas”) lives in South Carolina, and he has a fine ear for the nuances of Southern dialogue and a nicely irreverent Gothic sensibility that at times makes the play appear like an amalgam of Lillian Hellman and Beth Henley.
To be fair, “The Moving of Lilla Barton” is not all derivative storytelling nor amusing caricature. The play does deal with such unfashionable but worthwhile topics as the effects of losing a spouse, the pain of bereavement, and the way a deeply depressed person can utterly paralyze those around her. There’s also a good chunk of religious and spiritual debate in the play (we learn that Lilla’s husband lost his faith and it was actually the wife who wrote his famous sermons) and a gently optimistic sensibility emerges by the end. This is a play with a simple but good heart.
But it’s not a play with flawless plotting. There are some coincidences that are mighty hard to swallow, especially surrounding the deus ex machina sheriff (Raphael Nash) who refuses to evict Lilla because her husband was once so kind to his child. They could be easily toned down. MacNicholas could also let his sentimental faucet gush a little less.
It helps greatly that Susan Willis’ strong premiere production includes sterling performers like Forbes and Boys, classical actors with booming voices who excel at this kind of talky, erudite play. Boys is particularly good, as is Stockton, who ensures that her role as a diabolic realtor transcends mere caricature. Unfortunately, Swift is far less successful in the title role; her performance seems flat and overly introspective. She’s the only weak link in an otherwise excellent cast.
“The Moving of Lilla Barton” is a quiet kind of play that will likely appeal more to an older audience, and it certainly cannot be credited with great theatrical innovation. The Shakespeare Festival’s design team gives the one-set play a simple but elegant veneer that perfectlymatches the script. All in all, it’s an evening of good, old-fashioned comic charm.