When it comes to the South, family and one's roots are everything. From William Faulkner's Snopes and Compson clans to the feuding and power hungry Ewing and Barnes families on television's "Dallas," the archetypal story of the younger generations of a family protecting or inversely defaming their name and heritage is almost as patently southern as sweet tea and mint juleps.
"Johny Duke Left" is the most recent incarnation of this most Southern of story arcs, but with a touch of the supernatural. Written, produced and performed by Henry Hagerty, the play follows the journey of Tucker Simmons, younger brother of the recently deceased Johny Duke Simmons, as he reconciles the death of his brother with his own future. Simmons (Robert Forrest) is ready to bury his brother and dash off to New Orleans and leave any loss and regrets in the dust of the dirt road.
However, Duke (a vibrant Hagerty) appears to his little brother at his own funeral in order to convince Tucker to stay and fight for their family's home and way of life as shrimp fishermen in McClellanville.
Duke's phantasmic powers come with some inherent restrictions. He can only curse five times, he has to tell the truth and, most pressing of all, he has only until the end of his funeral to convince young Tucker. Duke and and Tucker's scenes are a highlight of the play, with Hagerty and Forrest bonding over their lives, time loss, and the choices made along the way and those soon to come.
Tucker is at a crossroads. Venture forth into the all-but-certain Bacchanalian environment of New Orleans or stay on his shrimp skipper, the Dixie Dream, in the marshy confines of shrimp country. A major incentive to stay is Tucker's former on-again-off-again love interest Alida (a searing Peggy Trekker White) who is also trying to open Tucker's eyes to the wealth and love he has right in front of him.
The story, unfortunately, isn't just brotherly life tips and heated romantic exchanges. Hagerty's Carolina ghost town is haunted by worse things than the ghost of Johny Duke. In order to emphasize the conflict in this morality play, there are a bevy of stereotypical characters - the overtly slimy and incestuous mother-son villains Estelle and Pinckney Chastain (Lynda Harvey and Kenneth Charles Graham), the maternal and calm sheriff of the town Fredina Jenkins (Teresa Smith), her energetic nephew and Tucker's friend Julius Jenkins (Joey Ramond Greene), and the wealthy village elder Sidi Hagood (Fred Hutter).
The infiltration of these stock characters provide plenty of fodder for comedy and Southern charm, but overcrowd and diminish the bright and potent drama between the brothers celestial conversations of life and death.
Of special note is the King Singers Choir, which act as the musical Greek chorus of southern burg. Their opening songs and tableau around Duke's recently dug grave is ethereal and uplifting.
A fusion of morality play and small town comedy, wrapped in Southern spunk and gentility, "Johny Duke Left" is a first cousin of the popular Tyler Perry plays and films. Though it's plot may seem obvious and the characters easily categorized, the morals and lessons delivered are pure theatrical soul food.
Nick Reichert is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.
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