Chi-Town Revelers

at Puszh Studios

Though Dark of the Moon, written by Howard Richardson and William Berney, won the Maxwell Anderson Award in its 1942 premiere, Richardson struggled for years before he could find a Broadway producer. The Theatre Guild considered it briefly but chose instead a musical adapted from a play called Away We Go. As Richardson recalls in his 1966 introduction to Dark of the Moon, “I would like to think that they had made a tragic mistake, but in the light of history such a judgment would be hard to substantiate.” The name of the musical they chose was Oklahoma!

Though it’s likely the Theatre Guild never regretted its choice, Dark of the Moon did open in New York in 1945 and enjoyed its own success: an extended Broadway run and a long life later as a favorite with amateur and college theaters. This production by Chi-Town Revelers is more amateur than Broadway, and wildly uneven. The first act makes you wonder why the play was ever produced, but in the second the many merits of this delightful folktale come through.

Based on the mountaineer version of the popular ballad “Barbara Allen,” the play tells the story of John, a witch-boy. The Conjur Woman consents to turn him into a human for one year so that he can court and marry the beautiful Barbara Allen, but if she’s unfaithful to him in that year, John must return to being a witch forever.

Ironically, Dark of the Moon holds up a devilish mirror to the folksy romance that made it to Broadway first. In Oklahoma! we’re charmed by a simple people. Love blossoms on the prairie, and the only hint of darkness comes from an isolated bad seed, a lecherous farmhand. Richardson and Berney’s story leads us to believe that the foothills are populated by similarly decent, God-fearing people, but what makes Dark of the Moon so juicy is the truth behind the facade. While the lovers in Oklahoma! overcome the farmhand’s interference with the support of their nurturing neighbors, John and Barbara’s marriage is opposed by her entire hometown, who fear John and want to destroy their union.

The climactic revival scene shows the town at the height of its frenzy, satirizing the search for salvation through public confession. The crowd thrills when two timid people get up separately to confess their sins, and their voyeuristic joy doubles when the couple describe in a sensual rhythm their union in the barn: one begins, “We was in the barn a-shuckin’ dry corn,” and the other answers, “Cawn shucks soft, cawn shucks warm.” Choruslike, the congregation punctuates the confession with “Lord, they pleasured tharselves in the barn.”

Vibrating with singing and bodies shaking, the revival scene is by far the best in this production, directed by Brad Waters. Here the large cast sings spirituals like “The Old Religion,” “Never Alone,” and “Lonesome Valley” with conviction. But unfortunately this is the only setting in which the supporting cast seems comfortable. Hopelessly ill at ease in earlier choruses, they’re unable to re-create the spontaneity of friends singing at a party or of a band practicing together. Ad-libs consist of wide eyes, dropped jaws, and pointing at the main characters–reducing the townspeople to hokey caricatures. And until the revival scene, they just can’t catch the syncopated rhythms of the more poetic passages.

As the ill-fated lovers, Michael Hargrove and Rebekah Smith certainly convince us of their undying love. Even when the story becomes a struggle between good and evil, between the church and a witch, we still root wholeheartedly for the witch. They exude so much wholesomeness, however, that they seem better suited to the Oklahoma! lovers than to the witch-boy and his wife. Smith, a perky blond with a sweet voice, lacks the fierce sexuality of a woman who has “pleasured herself” freely and conceived a child before marriage. Hargrove, long-legged and gangly, is all boy and very little witch. John says, “Sometimes being human’s more’n I kin stand. . . . sometimes I feel I jes’ got to git away.” And yet Hargrove does not show that restlessness, or the way John feels tempted to fly with his eagle again or return to the three sultry witches who were once his playmates.

This production creates little fanfare for the witches–no ominous music or drastic lighting changes–and overall there are only slight differences between the natural and supernatural worlds. Costume designer Beth Ensey outfits the netherworld in rags and torn furs and the poor rural community in worn dresses and overalls. Melissa A. Gaspar’s fixed set reinforces the sense that the two worlds are nearly one: dingy tarps draped over platforms represent both the witches’ mountain lair and the town below, suggesting a common dreariness. By downplaying the differences between the witches and the humans, the Chi-Town Revelers wisely downplay the witches’ power over the humans. As the play implies, we’re able to inflict pain on one another without supernatural help.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Hargrove.