Rarely professionally staged, Dark of the Moon—a mythical story of witches and farmers set in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina—enjoyed a run on Broadway in the 1940s and has since lived on mainly in high school, college and community theaters. Thirsty Turtle Production’s take on this classically problematic play conjures up a cohesive and atmospheric look at the perils of prejudice and unquestioning adherence to religious dogma.
Reviewed by Ilena George
A Southern Gothic fairy tale with a dark side worthy of a Shirley Jackson story, Dark of the Moon offers a kind of story-telling that feels much larger and more epic than the space it's housed in might suggest. Based loosely on the 17th century folk song "The Ballad of Barbara Allen," Dark of the Moon presents a Romeo and Juliet-esque story about a woman and a witch-boy who fall in love and pursue a doomed relationship that both humans and witches oppose. John the witch-boy (Noah Dunham) makes a deal with Conjur Woman, an old woman with magical powers, who agrees to make him human for one year with the stipulation that he may remain human only if the beautiful (and loosely moralled) Barbara Allen (Sarah Hayes Donnell) stays faithful to him for one year. John must learn to live like a man—chopping wood, caring for his wife—but is forbidden to enter a church, which will almost instantly cast suspicion on him in the highly religious community he attempts to penetrate.
Atmospherically, the production uses simple sound and lighting tricks to great effect, from a string of lightbulbs in mason jars during a lightning and thunder-filled barn dance to rain sticks and an eerie plinking percussion during the scenes with Conjur Man and Woman. Hands down the best new take on the play was the decision to represent Conjur Man and Conjur Woman with seven foot tall wire and cloth puppets, helmed by four actors apiece. Appearing in the first scene of the play, their otherworldliness and mythic proportions set the tone for what followed.
Some other innovations worked less well: at the beginning of the second act, when John's witchly (and wicked) compatriots draw him out to cavort with them, the heavy black drapery blocking the light from chashama's 42nd street-facing windows was pulled back and the goings-on inside theater were visible to passers-by. A risky and gutsy move, to be sure, but one that detracted from the show for its "You're on Candid Camera" prankiness.
Crawford's direction and the strong cast of vivid characters nimbly avoid many of the play's pitfalls. The townspeople as a whole, and in particular the terrifically smarmy Preacher Haggler (Jake Thomas), optimistic and flirtatious Ms. Metcalf (Jessica Howell) and Barbara Allen’s bellicose jilted lover Marvin Hudgens (Matthew Hadley), take what could have been two-dimensional characters and instead provide a chilling portrait of how fear, prejudice, and the hive mentality can push an otherwise vibrant community into terrible acts. The witches provide creepiness during the first act, but the humans dish it out in the second with the evocative and unsettling scene where Barbara Allen gives birth and the religious revival where the town sanctifies rape in the name of God.
One spot where the play does occasionally falter is with the overabundance of rural, folk-speech that easily tips over into ridiculousness. Between the dozens of uses of "I reckon" to the many "that don't make no never mind," as well as references to stereotypically hick practices—drinking moonshine made from corn, eating squirrel meat and so forth—the play becomes, at times, difficult to take seriously. This isn’t helped by the play’s odd pacing, where scenes with fighting, singing and magic will be interspersed with scenes that barely further the plot. But the strength of the two leads—who are completely riveting to watch—the often joyous (if sometimes oddly timed) musical interludes of folksy songs, spirituals and ballads combined with the unexpectedly thought-provoking themes and images that give the play life, make Dark of the Moon worth taking a chance on.
Dark of the Moon
By Howard Richardson and William Berney
Directed and adapted by Ian Crawford
Collective P.A.S.T. @ chashama (217 East 42nd Street)
June 15th through July 7th
Tickets ($15): Smarttix.com or 212-279-4200
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