Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kenley Smith's New Play Fulfills the Hope

Kenley Smith with director Pat Wilhelms just before the opening curtain^

Kenley Smith's "Shade of the Trees," a 75-minute, one act drama that premiered tonight at Studio Roanoke downtown is exactly the kind of fare I hoped against belief would be the standard for this new, experimental undertaking. It is a story of friendship, growth and evolution that has its roots in Kenley's grandmother's oft-told tales and a play that began in a young adult writing class at Hollins University.

It was expanded and filled out--and given a good bit of maturity--before it found the stage as--in Kenley's words shortly before curtain time--"a Kenley Smith play."

It is, in short, the recollection of a grandmother's early years on the farm during the Civil War when she clandestinely befriended a runaway slave who taught her to read in exchange for her kindness. The ramifications of that relationship at that time are splattered all over some marvelous writing, something for which Kenley has earned a solid local reputation during his several years with No Shame Theater.

The production showcases the directing talents of my friend Pat Wilhelms, who was at one time a Mill Mountain Theatre staple, but who was fired during the theater's waning, troubled days. She took her act across the street to the Taubman Museum of Art, where she started a successful children's theater. "Shade of the Trees" featured a solid ensemble case of Roanokers (Heidi Klockenbrink, Dorian Dozier, Martha Boswell, Chris Brumback, Barry Bedwell, my pal Mary Best Bova [who once played my wife in a production], and a scene chewing performance by Brian O'Sullivan as a thoroughly dispicable neighbor) and an appropriately simple, believeable set by Jimmy Ray Ward.

Pay close attention at the end of this one--after, it appears, everything is settled--because there's a subtle, powerful plot twist that will drop your mouth. It's quite a touch and if you don't watch and listen closely, you'll miss it.

I will not go another line without mentioning that the funniest woman in Roanoke, Michelle Bennett, introduced the play, something she did hilariously for years at MMT before being banned from the stage by the now-gone administration. Michelle's return is as welcome as anything about this theater.

Let me strongly recommend you plunk down your $15 and see "Shade of the Trees," then sign up for what's coming next (that would be "Eliss Blossom" by Sunny da Silva Sept. 22-27). Kenley has good sense when it comes to theater and his own work is not all that recommends Studio Roanoke. You can find out everything you need to know here.

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