Author Lee Smith's novels and stories have been adapted for the stage so many times, she's practically a theatrical brand name.
There have been musical adaptations, dramatic adaptations, and, in 2010, Good Ol' Girls, an Off-Broadway combination of Smith's and fellow N.C. author Jill McCorkle's short stories.
Now there's "Tongues of Fire," Touring Theatre of North Carolina's latest production. Producing artistic director and TTNC founder Brenda Schleunes chose this Lee Smith short story for the company partly because she believes it is one of Smith's finest. It also lends itself nicely to TTNC's format, this time brought to life in Triad Stage's Upstage Cabaret, a space that allows an intimate, authentic theatre experience.
Six characters tell the story that Smith has called "truly one of the most autobiographical stories I have ever written." For Lee Smith fans, and there are legions, that makes "Tongues of Fire" a must-see.
Especially this production. There's really not much tweaking, no changing words, no rearranging of scenes. This is pure Lee Smith interpreted by characters in period (that would be 1957) costumes. It will no doubt be one of the most interesting adaptations you have seen, sans the hoopla and distracting accoutrements to which, sometimes, directors of Lee Smith pieces fall victim.
Karen, Lee's character, is played by two actors, the adult who narrates and the young Karen who acts out the emotions and angst of a 13-year-old girl. Laurine Concutelli's narration is seamless. Narration is not easily pulled off, but Concutelli gives us the background, with words straight from the story, in a conversational, easy-to-listen-to voice. Anyone who has ever met Lee Smith is struck by her titillating Southern drawl, but Concutelli does not give in to the temptation to try to mimic. Yes, there are shades of the South in her performance, but Concutelli makes this part her own, and it is very good indeed.
Megan McIver is the young Karen, and it's easy to see a vision of the young Lee Smith here. After this performance, it would be hard to imagine any young actor who could pull off the enthusiasm, naiveté, and downright silliness any better - nor one you'd more enjoy watching. With every twirl of the full skirt, every "ceaseless" prayer to heaven and glance askance, McIver shows her skill as an actor. In a Lee Smith adaptation awards show, best actor nomination goes to McIver. And my money's on McIver, who has toured regionally with numerous companies.
The role of Mama is played with Southern perfection by Deborah Kintzing, who is the picture of the proper Southern mama. In the short story, Mama performs quite the balancing act, and Kintzing proves herself quite the tightrope walker: elegant, sophisticated, and cool under fire. Kintzing will be recognized by some as an actress and director for Broach Theatre.
Rounding out the six-person cast (the number of actors who will fit into a car, according to Schleunes) is David Fracarro, Camilla Millican and Kay Thomas, all of whom play different colorful characters with aplomb.
It's hard to believe that Lee Smith will be 70 years old in just a couple of years. In TTNC's "Tongues of Fire," we see her joyous and spirited childhood self. Whether you're a long-time Lee Smith aficionada or someone who has never read a Lee Smith book (really?), this production proves that Smith, and TTNC, itself in existence for more than 30 years, will be forever young.
The show continues through April 15. For details, see the sidebar.