Saturday, July 28, 2007
Town's Hollywood moment recalled
By Marty Rosen
In 1956, Hollywood came to Danville, Ky. The late Col. Eben Henson, visionary founder of that city's Pioneer Playhouse, convinced MGM that Central Kentucky would make an excellent location for the epic Civil War film "Raintree County." And it came to pass that a quiet town where young men sported high school letter sweaters, old men sat on their front porches and played checkers and postmen took time out from their appointed rounds to snap beans on hot summer days was invaded by such glittering stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Eva Marie Saint, Montgomery Clift, Lee Marvin and more.
That episode in Kentucky history is the impulse behind Catherine Bush's delicious new comedy, "A Jarful of Fireflies," now playing at Pioneer Playhouse as the centerpiece of Danville's nationally renowned (thanks to a feature playing this month on Turner Classic Movies) Raintree County Festival.
Mixing fantasy and fact, Bush focuses her attention on how that influx of Hollywood crazies affects a tightly knit neighborhood that functions as an extended family.
Curmudgeonly old coots Charlie and Roy (Eben French Mastin and Timothy J. Cox) spend their days fighting over the rules of checkers and debating whether the Civil War was a war of rebellion or a war of Northern aggression. Tom, the town banker, and his wife, Margaret (Sean Cook and Patricia Hammond), are raising their daughters, bubbly teenaged Nell (Danielle Mann) and the innocent, perpetually childlike Patty Cake (Meg Mark) in a safe zone where the biggest neighborhood problem seems to be how to overcome the painful shyness that's keeping the obviously smitten postman Tug (Robert Hess) and frumpy, vulnerable schoolmarm Myra (Kim Darby) from getting together.
Everything changes when busybody Birdie (Synge Maher) starts spreading juicy rumors that Tom and Liz Taylor are a hot item (which induces the worried Margaret to start sipping heavily spiked lemonade); when Charlie and Roy are recruited as uniformed soldiers in battlefield scenes; when Nell's boyfriend Teddy (Matthew Franta) becomes Montgomery Clift's understudy and trades his letter jacket for Hollywood sunglasses and aspirations of stardom; and when Patty Cake sets out to collect fireflies for Eva Marie Saint, who has told her there are no fireflies in Hollywood.
Bush's script slings sap and vinegar in equal measure, deftly leavening sentimental moments with pithy punch lines. Director Robby Henson keeps the action at a fast pace, and the ensemble attacks the material -- both serious and comic -- with rare glee. The comic climax is a brawl that finds most of the men rolling on the floor while Montgomery Clift dashes by in the altogether -- an episode that leads to a series of ironic jokes undermining the image of a "big" Hollywood star.
But meanwhile, a more tender struggle is transpiring: Sad, struggling Myra is gradually blossoming as a woman -- a transition delicately and masterfully portrayed by Darby, whose extensive Hollywood career includes a slew of TV appearances and the memorable part of Maddie Ross in "True Grit."
Prior to the performance, as Charlotte Henson sang folk songs in a limpid soprano, audience members strolled through a nicely curated museum exhibit filled with "Raintree County" photos and memorabilia. By 10:30, as the play ended, the night was filled with the sound of crickets, fireflies were flickering in the Pioneer Playhouse amphitheater, and the stars were coming out.