Listen, my children, and you shall hear of a magical one-person theater piece that captivated those lucky few who saw it, back in 1980, in midnight performances on the Off Broadway set of “Vanities.” Drawn from works of Southern writer Eudora Welty and performed with sublime artistry by Brenda Currin, that show passed too soon into theatrical legend. But in a 25th anniversary production mounted in tribute to the flood-devastated states of the Gulf Coast, “Sister and Miss Lexie” maintains all its powers of enchantment — and then some.
Welty was a verbal necromancer. She wrote novels and short stories about her Southern neighbors in a voice of such pure lyric beauty that the brutal honesty of her observations doesn’t immediately register. But when those dark character revelations finally come — laying bare the sad histories and dirty secrets of all those genteel ladies with their pretty names and proper manners — they land with the kick of a mule.
In the first piece adapted for inclusion here, we observe prim music teacher Miss Eckhart giving piano lessons to three bored pupils. But when a summer storm strands the three little girls in the music room, Miss Eckhart shocks the socks off them by playing a passionate piece of music that reveals an alarming side to her character. “Something had burst out: unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person’s life.”
“The Battle Between Miss Julia Mortimer and Miss Lexie Renfro,” another story about those nice spinster ladies who sit rocking on their porches and reading their Bibles, starts off just as innocently, with Miss Lexie entertaining us with an amusing account of Miss Julia’s notoriously high-handed methods as a grammar schoolteacher. But the narrative turns on itself like a rattlesnake, revealing the poisonous truth of what people really think about their intellectual superiors (“the ones who think highly of you”) and how they punish those who dare to challenge small-town ignorance.
Even the most overtly comic tale, adapted from “Why I Live at the P.O.” and the polished centerpiece of this production, opens with a hilarious hissy-fit between two sisters but ends on a vindictive note that tears a family completely apart.
Currin captures Welty’s bittersweet tone of affection and horror with uncanny precision. First she lulls you, in a musical voice that promises the unthreatening entertainment of watching eccentric folks in picturesque circumstances: “I’m just the go-between, that’s what I am,” she says in her disarming narrative voice, introducing us to colorful friends and neighbors like Miss Myra, Miss Theo, Mr. Sisum and Miss Ice Cream Rainey, who “sells cones at speakings.”
But before long, that seductive voice is luring you to look more deeply into these lives. Miss Myra and Miss Theo, as it turns out, hanged themselves from separate trees in their back yard when General Sherman’s soldiers cut through town and burned their home. And when Mr. Sisum fell out of his boat and drowned in the Big Black River, Miss Eckhart tried to throw herself in his grave. (“But they caught hold of her before she could.”)
Currin delivers these horrors with a sweet smile and in a no-nonsense tone that shows you that she, like Welty, is made of stern stuff. Too stern, actually, to need some of the directorial embellishments that have an unfortunate distancing effect. The fussy stage set that restricts Sister, the indomitable postmistress of China Grove, Mississippi, to a cramped wedge of playing space is a frustration for the audience.
And with the lyricism of Welty’s language so gorgeously interpreted by the musical accents of Currin’s voice, the presence of a piano player onstage is just a distraction.