Beautiful Star brings parables to Appalachia

by Amy Kingsley

Beautiful Star opens with a parade of small-town do-gooders – the preacher, his wife, a sheriff’s deputy, a scout leader, a cancer victim and a postman – and one prodigal son, the progeny of Reverend Roy Ledbetter and his wife Vestina.

It is an early hint that the play, the second collaboration between composer Laurelyn Dossett and playwright/director Preston lane, won’t be treading the same bleak terrain as last summer’s Brother Wolf. For their first play Dossett and Lane transposed the tale of Beowulf onto a secluded Appalachian community. The result was a darkly kinetic exploration of evil, righteousness, revenge and grace.

Lane returned to the Anglo-Saxon cultural well this time around for Beautiful Star. The play is a loose reinterpretation of the York Mystery Plays, a cycle of 48 Bible stories staged annually in York, England during the Middle Ages. Crafts guilds would reenact scenes from the Bible from the fall of Lucifer to Judgment Day in wagons that circled the city.

The York Mystery Cycle first caught Lane’s eye more than a decade ago when he applied for a grant to write an adaptation. The result, Wondrous Love, lasted all of one reading before Lane ditched it. Although he thought he was done with the York plays, the stories – and their language – stayed with him.

The players in Beautiful Star are not burly guild members. Instead they are parishioners at Open Heart Community Church. It opens softly, with Vestina and Eugene Stoneman entering through the audience to welcome church “parishioners.” Then Reverend Roy Ledbetter enters, delivers a brief “prayer” in which he warns the “parish” against unwrapping hard candy, answering cell phones and taking flash photographs.

Then the playacting begins. The action occurs on a movable set of polished hardwood. Stagehands slide two large, curved set pieces around the stage to transform the set from a church into Noah’s Ark and Mount Moriah. A trio of young musicians, Eric Robertson and Bennett Sullivan from Beaconwood and Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, performs Dossett’s folksy testimonials.

Lucifer’s fall is the first tale undertaken by the churchgoers, with preacher’s son Tidence Ledbetter taking the role of Satan. Ledbetter’s Lucifer reemerges periodically during the first half of the play, always robed in candy-apple red and lacing his lines with plenty of country-boy sneer.

After the players get cast out of Eden, they act out Noah’s tale before considering the plight of Abraham the faithful who is asked by God to kill his only son Isaac. Act One ends with father and son atop Mount Moriah, on a decidedly somber note.

The Abraham/Isaac scene is an anomaly; most of the others were either syrupy or punctuated with several sight gags. Noah, a blue-collar narcoleptic dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and trucker cap, earned the biggest laughs when, upon hearing God’s instructions over the radio, he used a hammer and chisel to dictate them onto a large stone tablet.

The cast, which is heavy on local talent and includes the elementary-school-aged Hazlett sisters, nailed the Southern diction and personal quirks of characters like Noah, Abraham, Mary and Joseph.

The crowd rose to their feet at the end of the performance and several wiped away tears. In the lobby, Managing Director Rich Whittington hawked soundtrack CDs to the audience.

Beautiful Star is the first major production Triad Stage has undertaken during the holiday season. Before this year Lane performed solo in Dickens of a Christmas and David Sedaris’ caustic Santaland Diaries.

Beautiful Star will be playing until the end of this month. Those who haven’t gotten their fill of Bible stories can look forward to a deeper exploration of the tale of Abraham and Isaac, which is the next project Dossett and Lane are planning to undertake.

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