The American Legacy
220 East Fourth Street ~ New York, New York 10009
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"One of my favorite downtown theaters" ~ Martin Denton, nytheatre.com
|Reviews - Sun-up
1923 Sun-Up Expresses Itself Gently
While theater companies around the globe were producing readings of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata to protest the coming war with Iraq, the Metropolitan Playhouse was quietly readying their production of Lula Vollmer’s 1923 play, Sun-Up. This play, which has not been seen professionally in New York since its debut, speaks poignantly on issues of war and duty to one's country while also giving a glimpse into a time and place rarely seen.
The time is 1917 and the place is the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Although World War I had been raging for years at this point, the denizens of this remote area have gone about their business unaware of the fighting in Europe and actually believe that France might be 40 miles away from Asheville.
This all changes when Rufe registers and is drafted. Rufe, is the son of Liza Cagel, who was widowed after federal agents shot her husband because of his moonshine trade. The widow Cagel is vehemently opposed to Rufe’s going to fight for "The Law", questioning what the government has ever done for her family, except cause its death.
Vollmer’s plot includes elements of melodrama – a sheriff whose sanctimony threatens the well-being of the widow and her family; a draft-dodger who shows up unexpectedly and test’s the widow’s compassion; and an ingenue who must choose between Rufe and the sheriff. Somehow, though, in Mahayana Landowne’s simple and graceful production, one doesn’t mind these old plot devices. As the play unfolds, one becomes immersed in the gentleness of the characters.
Much of the audience’s compassion is generated through Ruthanne Gereghty’s fine portrayal of Liza Cagel. Gereghty’s heavy Southern accent, and the character’s rather simplistic ideas could combine to give an audience the impression of a woman who is a distant cousin to Granny from "The Beverly Hillbillies". Gereghty, however, with her vast reserves of stoicism and truly regal bearing, does not allow this to occur. The actress never condescends to the character and almost from the first glimpse of her, smoking a corn-cob pipe, the audience is on her side.
Joe Plummer provides an energetic portrayal of Rufe and John Summerour brings a surprising and ingratiating intensity to Bud, Rufe’s future brother-in-law. One wishes that Sarah Dandridge might have found slightly deeper shadings in her portrayal of the ingenue, Emmy, and Tom Richter threatens to lapse into caricature late in the play as the sheriff, but neither threatens the audience’s interest or belief in the action onstage.
It's eighty years old, but it's sturdy and smart and resonant and remarkably fresh: Sun-Up, a genuinely "lost" play from American drama's formative years being given its first New York production in decades by the Metropolitan Playhouse, proves itself a classic. Sun-Up is about war and peace and mothers and sons; it's about standing up for what you believe in and finding the strength to forgive your enemies. It's a major find, whether you're a theatre scholar or a theatre lover; in the political climate in which we currently find ourselves, it's even more potently must-see theatre. I'd go so far as to say that Sun-Up may well be the most significant dramatic revival in New York this season. Make plans to visit Metropolitan Playhouse immediately.
I am thrilled and gratified to discover that a play that I read and loved a few years ago proves so vital and exciting on its feet—credit being due, obviously, to the excellent creative team that [Artistic Director Alex] Roe assembled to bring Sun-Up to life.
Sun-Up takes place in the remote cabin of Liza Cagle, somewhere in the mountains of western North Carolina, miles from anywhere. It's 1917, and Liza, widow of a moonshiner who was killed years ago by a federal revenue agent, lives modestly with her son Rufe. As the play begins, two important events are about to take place. First, Rufe is going to ask his pretty neighbor Emmy Todd to be his wife, and though she's also been asked by the local Sheriff, Jim Weeks, there's no doubt that she will accept Rufe's offer.
Second, Rufe needs to tell his mother that he has registered for the draft, and that he's decided to go off to fight in World War I. This is more momentous even than you might think, because Widow Cagle's distrust of governments and laws is particularly virulent. What's more, even Rufe, with his rudimentary education, has only the vaguest of ideas of what this war is about—he's been convinced by the recruiters that he needs to serve in order to protect his home and his womenfolk from the Germans, but he has no idea who the Germans are, France, he reckons, must be somewhere near Asheville, forty miles away.
In the play's second act, Rufe weds Emmy and leaves for the war on the same day. Widow Cagle doesn't agree with Rufe's decision to go, but she entirely respects his impulse to do what he thinks is right. Emmy and her brother Bud, who pretty much worships Rufe as a hero anyway, are proud and not a little scared. We watch them bid Rufe goodbye; the fear in their eyes is more about the unknown place he's going to than the prospect he won't come back.
Sun-Up 's final act takes place about five months later, in the midst of a bitter February snowstorm. A deserter has been traced to the Cagle cabin. Sheriff Weeks thinks it might be Rufe, but it is instead a stranger who the Widow defiantly hides from his pursuers. Events transpire, excitingly, and the Widow arrives at a point where she has to consider what's more important, her pride or her humanity. She concludes, in the play's powerful final scene, that "it's lovin' them all that counts."
I understand that in 1923, upon Sun-Up's original presentation, it was the deprivation of the uneducated mountain folk that made the greatest impression on audiences (resulting in substantial fundraising and other activities in support of public education in North Carolina and elsewhere). The remoteness of the characters still moves us, but so does their self-reliance and their fundamental honesty; playwright Lula Vollmer transcends the specifics of her work's time and place by creating people and situations with such great compassion and truth. Today, Sun-Up feels mostly like a play about war, and which ever side of the issue you stand on you will find fuel for your beliefs in this wise and canny work. You'll also find lessons on isolationism, the right to dissent, and the ways that governments try to control the governed; you'll discover, too, some wise and enduring notions of humility and bravery and love.
The production at Metropolitan is spectacularly good—as fine as anything I've seen there or, for that matter, in any off-off-Broadway house in New York. Director Mahayana Landowne has staged the play with unaffected simplicity, on a splendidly evocative set by Brian Jones, with appropriate costumes by Noelle Pasatieri and expert lighting by Douglas Filomena. The company of eight actors does outstanding work here, led by Ruthanne Gereghty as the stoic, indomitable but fundamentally loving Widow Cagle. The rest of the cast is Sarah Dandridge (Emmy), Roy Bacon (Emmy's father, Pap Todd), John Summerour (Bud), Joe Plummer (Rufe), Scott Ebersold (the Stranger), Tom Richter (Sheriff Weeks), and T.I. Moore (the Preacher). Together they give us moments that are profoundly affecting, like the time when, right after Rufe and Emmy's wedding, the Cagles and Todds hear a distant rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." "It's church music, ain't it Preacher," asks Widow Cagle; we understand, as the assemblage listens, that they've never heard it before.
This is a play that works its powerful and particular magic in unexpected ways, and on several levels. It makes for a rich and rewarding theatre experience.
by Martin Denton · March 7, 2003