A haunting snapshot of Southern myth, life
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Voices of the South is that rare theater company that not only creates new work regularly, it also creates astonishing work.
The best description of “Cicada,” a new original play running at TheatreWorks through Sept. 6, is poetry for the eyes, ears and soul.
Steeped in the mythology and romance of rural Southern culture, the play captures a magnificent sense of atmosphere without resorting to old sorghum stereotypes. Only a company so devoted to the literary “voice of the South” can produce a drama so densely packed with Welty-esque prose (mimosa trees, rumbling trains, lonely women, ghosts of the past, sweltering summers, evangelists on the radio, cicadas at night) and also make you feel completely connected to it. Like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the broken home in “Cicada” is a place everyone knows in their hearts, even if they’ve never been there.
From first to last, “Cicada” feels like a classic Southern ghost story. A young man, Ace (Adam Maldonado), lives with his mother in an old house. Ever since Dad left, Lily has gradually lost her mind. It’s summer, and the ghosts are starting to appear. They’re all women, barefoot and in simple house dresses, much like Lily.
In one sense, it’s as if writer, artistic director and Mississippi native Jerre Dye opened his sketchbook and the imagery tumbled out into this haunting snapshot of life. His set design is simple but effective: white sheets pinned to a clothesline, an attic full of dusty cast-offs, a small kitchen table with an ashtray.
As Lily, Alice Berry is fully invested in one of her most demanding roles to date. Her feelings of abandonment and loss manifest themselves in frightening outbursts.
Across the street lives LaNora, a self-described “mean old woman” who can “bite a nail in two.” She is also haunted, locked in cantankerous debate with her late husband (Steve Swift). It’s an incredible role for Cecelia Wingate, who, with heartbreaking reality, captures the rhythm and tragicomic complexity of Dye’s southern vernacular.
As is much of Southern literature, “Cicada” is dually informed by Greek tragedy and gothic romance. The young director, Leslie Barker, also raised in Mississippi, has staged an impressive blend of both. Her ghostly chorus infests the house like spiders, weaving a tapestry of silhouettes upon the bedsheets and haunting melodies on a jangly piano.
Voices of the South is perhaps best known for its hilarious comedies (the Sister Myotis series of shows), and vivid children’s theater adaptations (“The Ugly Duckling”). But “Cicada” exemplifies the caliber of the company’s creative team in a dramatic undertaking. It’s inspiring theater by an inspirational group of artists.