A sprawling tale of life in a backwoods lumber camp during the 1930s, "Polk County" has been mounted with cinematic sweep on the Princeton stage by director Kyle Donnelly, who adapted the piece with Cathy Madison from the rediscovered musical drama by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring.

A sprawling tale of life in a backwoods lumber camp during the 1930s, “Polk County” has been mounted with cinematic sweep on the Princeton stage by director Kyle Donnelly, who adapted the piece with Cathy Madison from the rediscovered musical drama by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring. The heady and flavorful mix of rural blues, gospel and down-home step-dancing adds immeasurably to the drama, accented by familiar folksy tunes like “John Henry” and “Careless Love.”

Narrative is centered on the tough backwoods women of the lawless sawmill camp in south-central Florida, with some salty humor and hardy-scrappin’ assists from their roughhouse gamblin’ men. Hurston, an early chronicler of American black culture, fashioned vividly significant characters from the sawmills and small-town juke joints that captured a place in time.

Pivotal figure is Big Sweet, a feisty no-nonsense gal described as “two whole women and a gang of men.” Balancing a short fuse with some deep-seated tender love and care, Kecia Lewis shines in the role, particularly in the big showy number “Leavin’ This Mess Behind,” a roaring declaration of resolve written by Chic Street Man.

Leafy Lee (Tiffany Thompson) is the more refined, kittenish, mixed-race woman who journeys from Manhattan in search of her worthless white drunk of a father. She’s on a quest to learn how to sing the blues from the workmen, wooed to the wedding altar by cool troubadour My Honey. (Charles Derricks-Carroll performs the underwritten role of the beau with slick assurance.) Thompson also sings the show’s most alluring ballad, “Who’s to Say That It’s All Over Now,” another original from the pen of “Spunk” composer Chic Street Man.

The sawmill bad girl is Dicey Long (Perri Gaffney), an envious and volatile camp tramp who declares she is “gonna get a new, big knife and make me a graveyard of my own.” Dicey uses a chilling touch of voodoo to disrupt Leafy Lee’s wedding celebration.

Eric L. Abrams gives a sturdy account of the gruff Quarters Boss, and Mississippi Charles Bevel offers a salty study of the wise and lanky dancing old-timer Few Clothes. Marc Damon Johnson as Box Car adds some grand high-stepping. An alluring Deidre Goodwin weaves a lethal dose of bayou witchcraft as the self-assured pagan beauty Ella Wall.

Donnelly’s vigorous staging balances the music, wit and drama with pace and purpose. A touch on the long side, the piece has great potential as a film. Not since the denizens of Catfish Row has there been such a melange of spirited folk, high drama and lusty comic flavor.

The lumber camp, set deep in gator-infested swamp country as designed by Thomas Lynch, is accented by a towering mill wheel, and the lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes makes it all look like a century-old daguerreotype scrapbook. The atmospheric lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes adds a subtle evening glow.

Polk County

Matthews Theater, Princeton, N.J.; 1,075 seats; $53 top

Production

A McCarter Theater Center in association with Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of a play with music by Zora Neale Hurston and Dorothy Waring, adapted by Kyle Donnelly and Cathy Madison. Directed by Donnelly. Musical direction and music, Chic Street Man.

Creative

Choreography, Dianne McIntyre. Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Karin Graybash; stage manager, Alison Cote. Artistic director, Emily Mann. Opened, reviewed Oct. 15, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Quarters Boss - Eric L. Abrams Few Clothes - Mississippi Charles Bevel Sop-the-Bottom - Carl Cofield My Honey - Clinton Derricks-Carroll Stew Beef - Doug Eskew Dicey Long - Perri Gaffney Ella Wall - Deidre Goodwin Laura B - Gabrielle Goyette Bunch - Lynda Gravatt Lonnie - Kevin Jackson Box Car - Marc Damon Johnson Do Dirty - Michael Keck Mandella - Aliza Kennerly Big Sweet - Kecia Lewis Nunkie - Rudy Roberson Preacher - Bill Sims Jr. Leafy Lee - Tiffany Thompson

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