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When Eros & Illinois, Ira David Wood III’s knee-slapping satire about a phony faith healer who is shocked to his larcenous core when he accidentally performs a real miracle, debuted at Theatre in the Park in 1978, it had a dynamite first act and a second act that, well, needed the laying on of hands. It’s a pleasure to report that on May 19th, the new and improved — although overlong — version of Eros & Illinois had the opening-night audience hooting and hollering from beginning to end. Indeed, the show earned a boisterous standing ovation from enthusiastic first-nighters.
Eros & Illinois gives Lynda Clark and David Wood, who play Sister Eros and the Rev. Illinois, their meatiest roles since they squared off as power-hungry Eleanor of Aquitaine and her estranged husband English King Henry II in TIP’s bravura production of The Lion in Winter. Clark, who seems to get younger and prettier with each role, adds to her reputation as one of the Triangle’s finest actresses with a gritty performance as a former Memphis prostitute who has found comfort and a kind of redemption pounding out hymns on the piano in the Rev. Illinois traveling circus. Sister Eros, who shares Illinois’ bed, has a lot of crosses to bear, not the least of which is his roving eye, especially for younger women; and Clark bears them all most impressively.
Repeating the role that he played in the show’s inaugural production, Wood shamelessly hams it up in Act I as an itinerant faith healer who pitches his revival tent in Buncombe County and sets Western North Carolina abuzz with a series fake healings, especially the climactic healing of a “cripple” — the good reverend’s wild-eyed, moonshine-swilling shill Sweat Pea (Mike Raab) — that Illinois’ emcee and accomplice Louis Oates (Danny Norris) tries to juice up with a hidden electric generator, nearly electrocuting his two friends in the process.
In Act II, when the Rev. Illinois (a.k.a. bunco artist Eugene Cates) inexplicably heals a stranger, Eros & Illinois takes a serious turn that playwright, director, and star David Wood navigates with great dramatic aplomb. Indeed, as Wood’s portrayal of the Rev. Illinois evolves from caricature to a full-blooded, three-dimensional characterization the show gets stronger and stronger.
Wood’s fellow original cast members Danny Norris and J.K. Ferrell also acquit themselves well. Norris is a scream as Eros and Illinois’ high-strung, bumbling accomplice in crime; and Ferrell contributes an ultra-creepy cameo as Buncombe County’s sadistic Sheriff Burch, who plays a sick cat-and-mouse game with the phony faith healer and his entourage of swindlers.
Mike Raab puts his own comic spin on the ultra-funky role of the wild-haired hillbilly Sweet Pea, originally created and indelibly performed by the late Mark Utermohlen; and Raab nearly steals the show with his outrageous antics as that disheveled gallous-snapping ne’er-do-well. Scotty Cherryholmes, who provides comic relief as the Rev. Hiram Sinclair, gives a crowd-pleasing performance as a local minister who is, well, a light in his loafers and cannot keep his hands off an increasingly uncomfortable Illinois.
Kathy Norris is a bit strident as Sadie Riggs, a hopelessly frumpy Bible-thumping widow and the exasperated mother of Lolita-like Hassie Riggs (Jillian Leigh Voytko), whose messing around with one bad, bad boy named Virgil “Buck” Tippette (Samuel Elliotte Whisnant) brings the widow and her prissy pastor, the Rev. Sinclair, to the Rev. Illinois in hopes that he can provide spiritual healing to young Hassie.
Jillian Voytko is sexy, but never completely convincing as Hassie; but Sam Whisnant is better in his chilling cameo as Buck.
TIP’s critically-acclaimed husband-and-wife team of scenery and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson and costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson once again dress the TIP mainstage for success. Steve’s multilevel wooden set facilitates the action, and his lighting scheme keeps the dramatic focus right where it should be; and Shawn’s striking Depression-era costumes add authenticity to the proceedings.
Because playwright David Wood cannot resist a good joke or a pertinent snippet from old timey radio broadcasts, Eros & Illinois runs about 30 minutes too long at a little over two and a half hours. But the Friday-night audience had no complaints. They had a grand time from beginning to end, completely ignoring the repeated misfires of a prop pistol, which was about the only snafu in this delightful lampoon of religious charlatans who get too big for their theological britches.
Theatre in the Park presents Eros & Illinois Thursday-Friday, May 25-26, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, May 27, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 28, at 3 p.m. on the mainstage at the Ira David Wood Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18 ($12 students and seniors 55+). 919/831-6058. Note: Arts Access will provide audio description of the 8 p.m. May 25th performance. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/.