This show marks Southwest Rural Theatre Project’s 10th production since its inception a little more than a year ago. That's an impressive record, but if Dark of the Moon is any indication, the company would be well-advised to consider fewer productions and more rehearsals.
The play is based on an Appalachian folk ballad about a witch boy and human girl named Barbara Allen who fall in love and must fight society's disapproving gaze to be together. Haunting and atmospheric, Dark of the Moon has a lot of potential. But the lack of preparedness by nearly all of the performers made for a frustrating evening at the theater. Across the board, actors appeared awkward and lackluster onstage. Lines were fumbled more often than they were landed. Cues were dropped, never to be recovered. And, save a few intrepid performers, no one seemed engaged in the action going on around them.
But nowhere are the problems more apparent than in the large ensemble scenes. The play calls for a mammoth cast, and packed into Southwest Rural Theatre Project's relatively small space, more often than not the actors awkwardly resemble a tin of sardines. The movement of the ensemble is crowded and muddled, and the main action is almost always upstaged by the meandering crowd. Too bad, as the story’s most compelling moment arises from one such group scene.
It is to Southwest Rural Theater Company’s great credit that members selected this play, written in 1945, to perform. It was a risky choice, different in tone and style from nearly anything else you will see in Albuquerque. But the risk paid off. The piece is emotional, thought-provoking and resounds deeply with even contemporary audiences.
The story centers on a close-knit, 18th century rural Appalachian community. Tradition defends the townspeople against all threats of the uncontrollable, unknowable world. They cling to their communal identity with ferocity. It’s this sense of identity, of insider against outsider, that propels Dark of the Moon.
Building that sense of community is central to the development of the narrative, and a mountain town is a rich tapestry from which to draw. It is so wild, so weird, so foreign. Even the language of the play is in a rural dialect so thick that at times it can be as difficult to decipher as Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English. Much of the joy of the production ought to come from watching the strangeness and specificity of the place unfold. But the actors don't seem understand or express that joy to the audience.
Religion plays an especially important role—not as an expression of spirituality, but as a shared mythology that creates real and ultimately dangerous boundaries between “us” and “them.” But, like all the rest of the peculiarities of the town, the power and volatility of closely held beliefs never properly build.
Only Leslie Joy Coleman, the play’s director, seemed to approach the material with the energy and commitment it needed. Coleman stepped in as an understudy in the role of Barbara Allen’s mother at the performance that I saw, and she rose to the challenge. She drawled her every “yorn” and “kin,” and relished the immensity of Mrs. Allen’s religious fervor. It’s clear from her performance that Coleman grasps what is at the heart of Dark of the Moon. It’s a shame she wasn’t able to communicate it to the rest of her cast. Perhaps with more time and more rehearsal she could have.