The Kudzu Blues 

Playwrights Forum gets Southern with Cymbals and Sounding Brass.

It's like something out of a horror movie," says Lilly, the heartbroken heroine of the play Cymbals and Sounding Brass, a new work by local playwright Billy Pullen. She's talking about kudzu, and as anyone who has ever stared at a field of the stuff for any length of time can attest, she's right. It is like something right out of a horror movie.

With a growth rate of up to a foot a day, you can almost see it advancing. It overtakes everything in its path, destroying forests by covering them so completely that no light can get through. The Japanese terror got its start in America as an ornamental. It was praised for its beauty. Now it is cursed for its tenacity. In the 130 years since it was first introduced to the American South, kudzu has become iconic, almost mythical. It has worked its way into our poetry, songs, and literature. It is a mighty metaphor for survival, begging to be used and abused. Pullen obliges in every way.

Cymbals and Sounding Brass is a genre play. A better-than-average genre play, mind you, but the device is tired. I don't care how good an author is, you just can't set a play around a Southern funeral with all the low-rent trimmings and expect to get points for originality. You can't have the greedy, no-account relatives arguing over the last slice of sweet-potato pie and not stand accused of engaging in gross Southern clichÇ. And if the hero of your story is a wild and reckless sort with no formal education to speak of but whose close connection to nature fills him with wisdom and poetry, well, you're skating on pretty thin ice there too. But Pullen is a gifted and sensitive writer with a keen, darkish sense of humor. He knows when he's working in familiar territory, and he navigates like a professional tour guide. And just when you begin to think that C&SB has nothing to offer that hasn't already been done a hundred times before, the author can surprise you with cotton-candy sweetness and black comedy. That said, the kudzu references are too frequent and too heavy-handed. Who knew the vine could be as pesky metaphorically as it is horticulturally?

Lilly has an image she can't shake. The last time she saw her husband, he didn't have a face. It was blown off by his best friend in a deer-hunting accident, and in death her cipher of a husband has become more mysterious to her than he was in life. The play is essentially about Lilly trying to figure out who her husband was so she can finally say goodbye. Add to this a pair of bumbling idiot relatives determined to get their unfair share of the inheritance and anyone mildly familiar with Southern literature can predict the outcome.

Director Pete Montgomery is a talented actor. His directing skills, however, are still developing, and Cymbals and Sounding Brass is, in terms of stagecraft, like a handbook of what not to do. The set consists of clothing (T-shirts, pants, dresses, etc.) sewn together like vines and hung from floor to ceiling. It is supposed to represent kudzu, but it just looks like an on-the-cheap thrift-store display. There is nothing in the script to help the audience see the clothing as kudzu, which makes the set a huge distraction. How can you follow a scene when you are mentally preoccupied, wondering what all the clothes are about? And this is just the beginning.

The script for C&SB frequently references blues, gospel, and honky-tonk music: the three principal roots of rock and soul. Montgomery chooses to ignore the references and instead uses Irish soulman Van Morrison's already overused "Into the Mystic" and a cover of the Bill Withers Stax classic "Ain't No Sunshine" to define key scenes. Both are fine songs, but neither reflects the kind of music the play's characters constantly mention. A specific mention of Barbara Mandrell's "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed" flies right by without acknowledgment. And when Montgomery actually uses country music, he blows it by sampling from the ubiquitous O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. That music, which brought traditional American forms back into the international spotlight, is so identified with the movie it came from and the subsequent documentary and concert tour that it's distracting in any other context. It's roots music for people who don't like roots music, and, at best, a validation for longtime admirers of the various forms. When Pullen's characters talk about honky-tonk they mean Hank Williams, not George Clooney (or his voice double).

Perhaps I'm being too nitpicky here, but Pullen's play, for all its wonderful characters and spot-on dialogue, flirts too much with the familiar. Using the inescapable Van Morrison and the near-comical "In the Jailhouse Now" completes the clichÇ. Cymbals and Sounding Brass is an example of solid storytelling married to solid performances. It deserves a more thoughtful production. n

At TheatreWorks through October 25th.

davis@memphisflyer.com.

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