The Brown County Playhouse’s summer season opened with Connie Ray and Alan Bailey’s "Smoke on the Mountain." This pair was also associated with an earlier Brown County production, "Pump Boys and Dinettes." They’re back in the country, but this time they’ve got religion. Set in the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church near the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1938, the loosely scripted show features nearly thirty gospel tunes ranging from "The Little Brown Church in the Vale" of the 1860s to "Christian Cowboy" from the 1950s.
John Olson as a nervous but enthusiastic Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe welcomed the audience as if they were all members of various conservative Christian sects come together for a Saturday night sing led by the guests, the Sanders Family. It seemed that the family was slightly delayed due to their bus turning over as the entire family moved to one side for a local scenic view.
The Sanders family was quite a group. The slightly taciturn guitar and accordion playing father, Burl was Paul Blankenship. Pianist and violinist Jennifer Drew was mother Vera. Rachael Sickmeier played the least musical daughter June. June was relegated to playing percussion and signing for the family. Rebecca Faulkenberry and John Armstrong were the family twins, Denise and Dennis. David Cole played banjo and some lead guitar as the family’s blacksheep uncle, Stanley.
During "Smoke on the Mountain" the singing was interspersed with family stories in a testifying mode. Father Burl told of how he was almost persuaded to sell beer at his family store and filling station. Sister Denise confessed to giving in to the temptation to auditioning for the role of Scarlet O’Hara. Uncle Stanley told of an incident from his prison past. Sister June told of a visit to a huge hydroelectric dam and its inspiration. It’s a varied and not unattractive family with a lot of tales.
For me "Smoke on the Mountain" is a puzzling play. If I were supposed to be in my assigned role as a conservative Christian member of the audience, then the music and the testimony were serious. By the high standards of gospel music, the Sanders Family is a pretty good amateur group. There’s a lot in their presentation that’s not 1938, but it’s well within the tradition. The metaphor of a Christian Cowboy rounding up strays, a medley of songs about the cleansing power of Christ’s blood, mother Vera’s children’s story of the June bug on a string representing God’s lov, it all fit. But, that wasn’t the way in which "Smoke on the Mountain" presents them. They were played as comedy, as if they were inherently funny, as if the Sanders Family were at least in part unconscious buffoons. Frankly, I was uncomfortable.
There wasn’t a lot of laughter on opening night, but the Brown County audience seemed unruffled by the production. The show ended with a sing along on "Bringing in the Sheaves" and the audience good naturedly joined in. Applause for the cast was generous.
Direction and choreography was by George Pinney with musical direction by John Berst.
"Smoke on the Mountain" plays Wednesday through Saturday nights at eight and Sundays at three through July second. You can find an interview with the cast’s Paul Blankenship on our Arts Interviews page .