“The Ballad of Barbara Allen” is a very, very old folk song, with many versions, all telling the tale of the ill-destined love between a boy and a girl. Dark of the Moon, a play written in 1939 by Howard Richardson, and revised for production in 1945 by William Berney, uses a version that makes the girl a beautiful, flame-haired Appalachian gal, and the boy—a witch. The two meet and make love on Baldy Mountain, and the witch-boy falls so hopelessly under Barbara’s spell that he successfully begs another magical being, Conjur Woman, to make him a human. She does—but with the catch that his love must remain faithful to him for a year, or he’ll change back into a witch. When he emerges, as a human, into the tiny mountain community, the residents regard him with suspicion, which eventually turns to hatred, with fatal consequences.
The production of this play now on the Main Stage at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre exposes both the strengths and the flaws of the original concept.
On the positive side, director/set/costume designer Scott Dunlap chose the musical elements of the play wisely and well. Hayley Graham and Janna R. McKinley sing the classic Appalachian folk songs beautifully and with deep feeling. They are well supported by Barrett Taylor, Paul Daniels and Andrew Chauncey on the mandolin, fiddle and accordion respectively. Chauncey also serves as musical director for the piece, and the scenes in which most of the cast sing revivalist gospel tunes show detailed care.
The large cast also boasts some excellent performances, including Graham as the jealous and spiteful Edna Summey and Matt Johnson as smarmy Preacher Haggler. As Uncle Smelicue, Ken Gross drifts in and out of character, but elicits the show’s best laughs with homespun observations. Rocky Resha as Marvin Hudgens, would-be lover of Barbara Allen, invests his character with the perfect physicality and his frustration with Barbara’s indifference and the Witch Boy’s ability to thwart him are very well played. Katie Cowley-Carpenter plays Barbara’s mother with a resigned dignity and sparks of humor that resonate truthfully.
The period costumes, designed by Dunlap, are also excellent.
However, Dark of the Moon as a script proves problematic. There simply isn’t enough storyline to support a full-length play, and this has been pointed out in reviews of the show since its Broadway run in 1945. The scene that undoubtedly was, and in some places still is, shocking—the community’s fundamentalist church’s decision to force Barbara to be unfaithful so that her husband will revert to his witch state—isn’t foreshadowed ominously throughout the play, but instead seems almost tacked on.
The other major difficulty is for a play of this kind, almost a tone poem, is that, to succeed, the leads must be charismatic and the chemistry between them palpable. Unfortunately, that is not the case with Joanna Key as Barbara and Lebron Lackey as John, the Witch Boy. The wild intensity that should captivate us and convince us that their love is worth sacrificing anything for is missing—and missed. Lackey does better in his first scenes as the Witch Boy before the change, but as the human John is strangely subdued. Key needs to make us see that this girl is the controversial and free-spirited belle of this community, and we do not see that girl.
As always, we salute the CTC for making script choices that venture outside the ordinary and safe, and the commendable commitment of the cast, designers and crew. And for those seeking a spooky tale with lots of atmospheric music, Dark of the Moon may chime the witching hour just in time.
Dark of the Moon
Through October 30
Chattanooga Theatre Centre,
Main Stage, 400 River St.