Gone like smoke

Bee-Luther- Hatchee

Cynetra Verona in <i>Bee-Luther-Hatchee </i>at Chautauqua Playhouse.

Cynetra Verona in Bee-Luther-Hatchee at Chautauqua Playhouse.

Rated 5.0

January’s been a busy month for local theater, with about a dozen new shows opening since New Year’s. Several have been very good. But the best surprise (also smartest, and spookiest) is over at the Chautauqua Playhouse in suburban Carmichael.

The play is called Bee-Luther-Hatchee and, to quote Churchill, it’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

The setup: A young, female African-American editor is sailing to a big promotion on the success of an autobiographical book she’s published—Bee-Luther-Hatchee, written by a secretive 82-year-old woman who’s spent her life drifting through the south. But when the book wins a literary prize and the young editor decides to surprise the elderly author by presenting her with the honorary statuette, the editor finds that her award-winning author’s not to be found at the nursing home where she theoretically resides.

It would spoil your enjoyment to give away any more of the artful switchbacks that playwright Thomas Gibbons has carefully arranged. But as the question of “who wrote the book?” is slowly untangled, Gibbons sets off a flock of fascinating moral dilemmas that—like the spirits inside Pandora’s box—go flying every which way once the central topic has been opened. Which is more important: the identity of the author, or the power of a moving, untold story? When does nonfiction cross into forgery, even if the details are accurate?

And who’s entitled to handle the story of a rootless, poorly educated but intelligent black woman, whose unheralded life embodied the problems stemming from the segregation of the 1930s and ’40s—things we’re still working out today.

This modestly mounted community production features a marvelous performance by Brenda Washington as Libby Price, the drifter at the heart of the story. As the script describes, she’s a character like smoke: you can see her, you know she’s real, but when you reach out and try to put your hand on her …

The rest of the cast is also good, including Cynetra Verona and Daryl Petrig, who dominate the play’s second half. Director Bill Rogers stages things beautifully, using some moaning cello music (from Yo-Yo Ma’s recent album, Solo) to enhance the mood, while designer Mary MacDonald uses darkness (as much as light) to drive things home.

Highly recommended. (And you’re wondering about the meaning of the title? Bee-Luther-Hatchee is 1930s, railroad-era black slang for “a far-away damnable place, the next station after the stop for hell.”)