Foxfire | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Touchstone Theatre

My grandmother just died at the age of 91. She lived in the same world we do, but she had one foot firmly planted in the 19th century, a world of horse-drawn wagons, kerosene lanterns, sewing bees, and barn raisings. Every time I visited her, I was struck by some strange anachronism -- a shelf full of green beans she had canned herself, for example, or a 45-year-old handsewn quilt on a bed upstairs. She lived in the same world, but during all the years I knew her, she remained firmly embedded in the past, while torrents of change rushed all around her.

It's outrageous that her life should seem so foreign to me, simply because it reached back so far. Change, like the passage of time itself, is inevitable, of course, but I still resent the way it cuts connections between generations. Growing up, I listened with barely concealed boredom to stories about the Depression, the war, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joe McCarthy's witch hunts. How could any of that stuff possibly matter? Now I am stupefied when I encounter young career-minded droids, driven by greed and ambition, who have no recollection of the idealism inspired by John F. Kennedy, or the rage provoked by the bombing of Cambodia. How could such things become irrelevant?

Foxfire is about change. A 79-year-old mountain woman named Annie, living alone in a ramshackle house, is tempted to sell the farm to a slick real estate developer. Her husband Hector is against it. "All ya got ta say is no," he reminds her. He would have ended negotiations instantly, but he's been dead for five years already. He's a character in the play only because Annie talks to him all the time. She clings to their past together, and refuses to acknowledge the rather decisive change that has taken place in their relationship. She recognizes, however, that she should consider the offer, despite Hector's opposition. The farm is now within commuting distance of Atlanta, and the developer has doubled an earlier offer of $50,000. Besides, she never sees her two older children anymore, and the third, Dillard, is a successful country singer. They obviously aren't going to farm the land, so what's the use of keeping it?

There are other pockets of turbulent change within the plot. Dillard has adopted a glitzy stage personality, to the disgust of a local schoolteacher who remembers his early heartfelt ballads. Dillard's marriage is in trouble too, and he keeps trying to talk his mother into moving to Florida to be near him and his two children.

The plot is built on the tension caused by impending change, and it's easy to conclude that there's nothing more to this sweet, simple story. But a silent, steady undercurrent runs beneath all this surface turbulence. This is also a story about connection -- between the young and the old, the past and the present -- and the title is a beautiful metaphor for this theme. Foxfire is the faint glow given off by a type of lichen that grows on fallen trees. It's illumination born of decomposition -- a light for the future provided by the disintegration of the past.

Connection is also taking place in this play. The past, like old Hector's body buried beneath the apple tree, is decomposing, but the ways of the past, and the experience of those who lived through it, provide sustenance for those in the present. "The year after they put me down I had that ol' apple tree bloomin' like the finest spring," Hector says. "Now, that's the way it works. Nothin' wasted."

Foxfire is also the title of a series of books based on interviews that young people in Appalachia have conducted for more than two decades with their elders. The purpose of the books is to preserve disappearing skills -- building a flintlock rifle, constructing a log cabin, hunting bear -- but one of the most heartening side-effects of the project has been to create a link between the young and the old.

Actor Hume Cronyn, who has become symbol, of sorts, for the wisdom and serenity of old age, was intrigued by these books, and by the meaning of their title. He and novelist Susan Cooper collaborated on this script, drawing inspiration from the Foxfire books, and borrowing the title.

The result is a play that is sentimental at times, but deftly written to show the passage of time and the connection of the past to the present. In one flashback, Annie is a schoolgirl being kissed for the first time by an awkward but amorous Hector. In another, an adolescent Dillard berates his father for planting crops during certain phases of the moon. "It's old-timey talk," Dillard sneers.

The flashbacks place heavy demands on the actors, but Ina Marlowe, the artistic director of Touchstone Theatre, has assembled a cast capable of meeting the challenges. Usually.

Barbara Patterson anchors the production as Annie, the old woman who forges the links with the present. Patterson resembles actress Helen Hayes, and the resemblance extends all the way to her calculated use of body posture and facial expression. John Reinhardt, a large, lumbering man, embodies the hard, serious personality of Hector, but adds some texture to the character with an occasional glint of humor. N. Marion Polus is credible as Dillard -- until he starts to sing. Even with a fiddler and a banjo player onstage with him, he's too tentative to pass as a professional singer. Jenifer Tyler deftly puts a thin veneer of city manners over the country schoolteacher; John Kavan gives a brief but self-assured performance as the doctor; and John Franklin is a little too polite and agreeable for a rapacious real estate developer.

The Touchstone has done an admirable job on this play. Despite limitations of space and money, Kevin Snow has put together a handsome, realistic farmyard. Julie Nagel's costumes are expertly distressed, and Marlowe's direction is relaxed and confident. Even though the Touchstone is in Lake Forest, 25 miles from the Loop, it rates as yet another off-Loop theater worth watching.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Shay.

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