The photo display in the Chicago Dramatists lobby chronicles pioneering musical folklorists John Lomax, Jean Ritchie, John Jacob Niles, and others who combed the hills of Appalachia as early as 1908, collecting mountain music descended from the English and Scots-Irish traditions. I grew up listening to performances by Ritchie and Niles in their maturity, so it was of particular interest to see the photos of them when they were young.
The display coincides with the world premiere of Ballad Hunter, which recently won the $5,000 Cunningham Prize for Drama for its author, Jenny Laird (a Chicago Dramatists resident playwright). The play surprised me--disappointed me, I must confess--because it isn't about ballad collecting or even a ballad hunter. The rich musical tradition of Appalachia, where the play is set in 1937, scarcely is referenced. Finally, a ballad hunter is mentioned deep in Act II, and in the closing moments he makes something of a surprise reappearance, wordlessly tying together several loose ends. But the play doesn't really make use of the thematic idea its title suggests.
This is not to say that Ballad Hunter fails; it's just not what I expected. It's a work of considerable atmosphere, careful and appealing character development, good yarn-spinning (itself an Appalachian tradition of a different sort), with a scent of mystery about it. It's a play that has something to say about perseverance and the human heart.
But there is too much hinting of secrets and old stories, and even those are revealed too late in the play. Much material could surface earlier without spoiling the tender surprise ending. As written by Laird, and as staged by Robin Stanton, the work has a steady pace, leisurely without being dull, which is fine for character development--but even in the second act, Ballad Hunter doesn't pick up steam or speed, so there is no dramatic build or arc of tension. More humor would help in many ways, and would have been entirely appropriate to the light-drama genre.
Enter Cecil (Kevin Fox), an idealistic representative of the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration, trying to sign up the mountain folk for government-sponsored electrical wiring. Twenty-something and good-looking, his colorful line of patter turns the ladies' heads, and includes most of the play's big set speeches. He's drawn to Lotta, and she to him, but--like the music theme--the sexual story also is underdeveloped, and should not be. Somewhat stereotypically, Cecil really represents the intrusion of the Outside World, as the ballad hunter had years before. Cecil's presence serves as a catalyst for the old secrets to be voiced.
Stanton has coaxed solid and touching performances from her five actors. Whitney, Williams, and Washburn imbue the three women with a sense of strong family ties, and yet remain sharply individual. Washburn particularly, playing a still-naïve pubescent girl, manages to be alluring but always fresh and innocent. Fox brings a fine combination of manly bearing and boyish charm to Cecil, and delivers the big speeches convincingly. Finally, Noble as the mute neighbor must say it all with his eyes and body language. He communicates everything required of him, but it's difficult for the audience to figure out whether or not Buzzy is a simpleton. He needs to have more interplay with the other characters to demonstrate that he's not.
Scenic and lighting designer Heather Graff brings the mountainside into Chicago Dramatists' studio theater. Her unit set is rich with earth colors and earth itself, framed by an arresting mobile-like web of evergreen branches created from transluscent green lighting gel material. Joanne Witzkowski's costumes have the flavor of hard times, plain people and washing by hand.