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.