Griffin Theatre Company

The sweet sorrows behind “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and other country-western ballads fuel The Night Hank Williams Died. A winsome depiction of homespun heartbreak, this sentimental slice of life by Larry L. King, creator of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, charts some very familiar territory. Like other hard-luck Southern weepers–including Between Daylight and Boonville, Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and The Last Picture Show–King’s 1989 drama chronicles the dead-end dreams of a dying town, where what might have been counts far more than what is.

The setting is 1952, in the sleepy dump of Stanley, a west Texas backwater that never produced oil and whose soil wore out long ago. Now it can only watch itself die. But Thurmond Stottle, the play’s 27-year-old hero, isn’t going down with the town. A former football star now reduced to a pump jockey, he leads a band called the Stompin’ Cowboys and dreams of becoming the next Hank Williams. Thurmond thrashes out promising ballads on his guitar, sends them to Nashville, and gets no replies. It’s clear he has a bad case of the “do nothins and don’t cares.”

Thurmond hangs out at the rattletrap Sundowner bar, which is run by Gus Gilbert, a grizzled survivor who hates the town but provides Thurmond with a cynical father figure, extending his beer tab and trying to keep him from going wrong. The other force in Thurmond’s shrinking life is his ex-fiancee Nellie Bess Clark, who’s mired in the fashionable but miserable marriage in Galveston that was her attempt to escape. Old feelings flare up when she returns to Stanley, and soon Thurmond and Nellie are the town scandal.

Menacing their accidental happiness are Sheriff Royce Landon, a bullying moron who wants to finger Thurmond (who’s suspected of some petty thievery), and Vida Powers, Nellie’s prudish, Bible-spouting mother, who once had an affair with the gloomy Gus. But Thurmond’s attempt to break away from Stanley only traps him deeper in the dust.

King’s script is a lot like his description of the town, “either Snoozeville or Dodge City.” Moving from lassitude to hysteria, it conveys only too well Stanley’s stultifying torpor and the violence that erupts like heat lightning (as if to provide perverse compensation for the dullness). Generous to a fault, King gives us far more information than we need, especially in the protracted scenes with the sheriff and with Nellie’s Holy Roller mom.

Rick Levine’s well-cast staging, a Griffin Theatre Company midwest premiere, captures King’s mix of stupor and combustability (though the long-winded scene where the sheriff threatens Thurmond and Gus seems needlessly glacial). At the heart of this compassionate offering are portrayals that refuse to condescend to King’s Texas types and that seem steeped in the lives of the characters. Foremost is the solid work of Jamie Denton, who turns the hapless Thurmond into a truly likable loser. Denton finds the soul in Thurmond’s ballads as well as the aching hunger that just might have made this lug another Hank Williams. With equal naturalness and contagious zest, Kim Muller gives Nellie the kind of bumptious impulsiveness we saw in Thelma if not Louise.

As the crusty but good-hearted Gus, Mel Zellman may lack a Texas accent but his deadpan provides a sardonic running commentary, and in his final moments with Nellie he turns touchingly paternal. Breathing life into some sturdy stereotypes are Eric Zudak as the malevolent sheriff; Rick Almada as Gus’s hard-drinking, dominoes-playing sidekick; and Patricia Donegan as Nellie’s holier-than-anyone mother who used to be a fun date.

Karin Simonson Kopischke’s costumes are definitely down-home duds, and Becky Flory’s battered barroom is rich with Dixie detritus. But John Narun’s less-than-varied lighting makes little distinction between night and day.