Liz Herron and Carl J. Johnsonin Ballad Hunter.
Liz Herron and Carl J. Johnson
in Ballad Hunter.
Appalachia, 1937. Roosevelt's Rural Electrification Administration will soon change the lifestyles of those living "on the mountain." As lights go on in the homes, a figurative light goes on for three women.

The West Coast premiere of Ballad Hunter, written by Jenny Laird and directed by Marci Hill, populates the Road Theatre Company's stage with a family and its legends. Bigger than the Appalachian outdoors, these legends are more stifling than the family's tiny house surrounded by massive trees.

We meet Gussie who, in her youth, met a man who was hunting the area for ballads--a musicologist of sorts, seeking to preserve the region's songs. "A streak of lightning toward your heart," Gussie says of their meeting, but all that remains for her are the memories and the couple's love child, Lotta. Gussie's mother, Hetty, has lost her husband in a mining accident that killed most of the men on the mountain. Now, the area's livestock are dying. It's a curse, Hetty insists; but Gussie has thought about life, God, reality. She has the capacity to rationally explain everything--except her own life.

The women have a history of distrusting each other. Hetty doesn't believe everything Gussie has told her, and Gussie now doubts Lotta. "Where is your faith in your family?" asks Gussie--but soon she admits she has also lied to her mother. All three have come to rely on their neighbor Buzzy, who is badly scarred from burns and is apparently a mute. Buzzy fulfills their simple wishes simply by listening to them. Lotta wants a rooster for dinner, so Buzzy sacrifices his pet. Hetty asks the price of a weather vane, and soon Buzzy is installing it on her roof.

The first act of Ballad Hunter works well, establishing the characters and setting up conflicts. Unfortunately, the end of the second act is loaded with shortcuts. Suddenly all is well, all is forgiven, as Laird abruptly sets the play's resolution before us. "It's over now," says Hetty. Why? How? Further, some of the play's otherwise poetic language sounds too modern, too hip; for example, one wonders if a backwoods woman in the 1930s would say to her mother, "You never stopped judging me."

Liz Herron portrays Gussie with great skill. She stays immersed in the role but clearly and naturally conveys every thought and mood, as if a lifetime of the character's memories were floating through her mind. Gwen Van Dam gives Hetty a sweetly comical tone, even though her lines alternate between sarcasm and superstition. As Lotta, Eleanor Zeddies communicates the physicality of an immature young girl and delights when chatting up the patient Buzzy, but her character's simplicity sometimes gets lost. As the silent Buzzy, however, Carl J. Johnson is reminiscent of other actors who have played great non-speaking roles, revealing more from behind his character's badly scarred face than many actors do with sound and fury.

On the small stage of the Road Theatre, Desma Murphy's set clearly depicts a sturdy brick foundation and a stone fireplace in the women's kitchen, a dilapidated porch, and a dry front yard. The props, designed by Joe Hart, include several intriguing items: cooking utensils, for example, that would be collectibles now. Lighting designer David Flad shines festive red and blue lights on the overhanging trees, possibly meant to convey a fantasy of festivity in the seemingly colorless lives of the characters.