During the first few minutes of Smoke on the Mountain, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's current gospel comedy, the stage is only occupied by the Reverend Mervin Oglethorpe (Vaughn M. Irving), the devout, twitchy preacher at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. It's the summer of 1938 in rural North Carolina, and the good Reverend has a problem: He's arranged for the Sanders Family Singers to perform for his congregation, and with the service scheduled to begin, they're nowhere to be found.
Oglethorpe does his unsuccessful best to fill time, and just as he's about to collapse into his own flop sweat, June Sanders (Kimberly Furness) makes a hasty entrance, apologizes for the clan's tardiness - their bus overturned - and is soon joined by her family, who arrive in a burst of commotion and personality from the rear of the theatre. To its enormous credit, Smoke on the Mountain itself sneaks up on you in exactly the same way. Directed by Jim Hesselman, Circa '21's latest is occasionally touching and frequently hilarious, yet its greatest accomplishment is that you won't necessarily see either attribute coming; your enjoyment stems from the show's continual series of magical found moments.
Smoke on the Mountain isn't much concerned with plot - a character introduces him- or herself, delivers an inspirational monologue that segues into an inspirational song, and so it goes for the performance's speedy, less-than-two-hour running length. But within this conventional design, Hesselman's production proves to be wonderfully surprising, because its director rarely telegraphs the jokes and the sentiment, and doesn't shove the characters' comedic eccentricities down our throats; Hesselman trusts his audience to discover the amusing and moving elements for ourselves.
Nowhere is the director's approach more successful than in his handling of Furness' June. As she herself explains in her introduction, June doesn't sing, and is barely proficient on the simplest of instruments. (Her family takes turns on the piano, violin, cello, banjo, and more, which Smoke on the Mountain's actors/musicians do with considerable brio.) What she does, though, is translate the lyrics through sign language - or rather, "sign language." Delivering the sorts of broadly literal gestures that would be laughed out of any ASL classroom - just watch what she comes up with for the phrase "no sickness, no pain" - the earnest, clueless June is a natural scene-stealer, yet happily, given Hesselman's staging, she's also an accidental one.
Rather than positioning her prominently, so that June's routines couldn't fail to be noticed, Hesselman generally tucks her amidst the ensemble, or off to the side of Cathryn Lass' beautifully lived-in set. It's a terrific, generous choice, as you're allowed to admire the cast's musical contributions before realizing, through the corner of your eye, just how hysterical Furness' mime show is; beyond being well-performed, a number of gospel numbers here have true drive, as they're accompanied by gradually escalating laughter. (At Friday's opening-night performance, a smattering of chuckles would repeatedly grow until, finally, the entire audience was in on the joke.)
Hesselman and his actors perform similarly subtle, equally satisfying feats all throughout. As twins Denise and Dennis, Jenny Stodd and Andrew Crowe seem to be forever communicating on some special, unspoken wavelength (they exude a shared delight at the siblings' impressive parlor trick of playing the piano upside-down), and are masterfully focused solo comedians; Stodd's recounting of Denise's Gone with the Wind audition becomes unexpectedly uproarious - Denise knows the experience has something to do with God but isn't sure why - and Crowe's nervous attempt at Dennis' first sermonette (he calls upon the lord "to fill my mouth") is achingly funny for being so underplayed.
Though her excitable portrayal is pitched higher than those of her co-stars, Vrenda V. Lee has a splendid scene in which her Vera marvels at a June bug on a string - a moment of devastating audience quiet that erupts in a gigantic belly laugh. (I'd argue that the slapstick preamble to the punchline neuters the gag, although the howling of those around me suggested otherwise.) Brad Hauskins has the most challenging, and somewhat frustrating, role - his Stanley is required to be vaguely pissed-off for the show's first half - but the actor performs with understated skill (and is in excellent voice), while Irving is a slyly ingratiating nervous wreck, never more entertaining than when Oglethorpe engages in some unplanned, inappropriate flirting.
And Bob Payne, as the family patriarch, is subtlety incarnate. So effortless a presence that he doesn't have to do more than be to garner empathy and respect, Payne brings an exhilarating honesty to the role, and his off-handedly emotional baritone is a wellspring of passion and truth. Ever since I first saw him on-stage in Circa '21's I Shall Not Be Moved in 1995, the best analogy I've come up with - which I've repeated like a mantra through the years - is that Bob Payne's voice is like a hug. Given the talents of the show's participants, the best analogy I can come up with for Circa '21's current offering is that Smoke on the Mountain is like Bob Payne's voice.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.