REVIEW: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: The Southern-Fried Characters of “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” Are Delightful
by Robert W. McDowell
The music of Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-77), the King of Rock and Roll from the mid-Fifties until his untimely death at age 42, provided much of the soundtrack of my generation. So, Baby Boomers, such as yours truly, will strongly identify with the Elvis-worshipping Southern-fried characters of “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind,” two wonderful one-acts by Ellen Byron, produced Wednesday-Sunday through June 26th by Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy.
In “Graceland,” a chubby, big-haired, big-hearted, middle-aged good old girl and fanatical Elvis fan named Bev (Sherri D. Sutton) from Wilmington, NC is camping out outside Graceland, so she will be first in line on that glorious day in June 1982, when the King’s Memphis mansion and mausoleum officially opens to his adoring public. Bev’s communion with Presley’s ghost and probably her consumption of a healthy dose from one of many colorful commemorative liquor containers shaped like Elvis is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Rootie (Estelle Collins), a much-younger skinny, nervous, high-strung blonde from Bayou Teche, LA.
Bev is salt of the earth and virtually imperturbable, until Rootie vehemently insists that SHE has to be the first one through the gates of Graceland, so she can deliver an important message to the entombed Rock-and-Roll Hall of Famer. Hell, no, replies Bev; and their long, long night of aggressively quizzing each other about Elvis trivia commences. By the time the first Memphis rooster crows, these two very different, very determined Southern women will have bared their souls and made their peace.
In “Asleep on the Wind,” set 10 years earlier in Bayou Teche, Rootie and her favorite older brother, Beau (Chris Chappell), rendezvous in their “secret place,” by the pillars of a ruined ante-bellum mansion deep in the bayou. Beau, a handsome Cajun lad who wears his hair and even talks like Elvis, has to break some bad news to the emotionally volatile little Ruth Anne Marie: he has quit his job at the local sugar refinery, joined the U.S. Army, and signed up to got to Vietnam. He leaves for boot camp at sunup. Rootie is distraught, and their rambling all night long talk on the subject only partly reassures her that Beau is doing the right thing.
There is a touch of the poet in Ellen Byron’s dialogue for these two very different one-acts. “Graceland” is very, very funny; but “Asleep on the Wind” is almost unbearably poignant, because the audience already knows, from the revelations in “Graceland,” what happens to Beau and Rootie after their long goodbye.
Director Dr. Kenny C. Gannon stages both shows with warmth and wit on two lovely sets by scenic designer Sonya Drum, with lighting designer Curtis Jones’ atmospheric lighting underscoring the mood and the urban (“Graceland”) and rural (“Asleep on the Wind”) soundscapes created sound designer Richard Coley also adding an air of authenticity to the proceedings.
Sherri Sutton is a real knee-slapper as Bev, the plain-speaking good old girl whose rhino-crusty exterior hides a sweet and sensitive soul. Estelle Collins is likewise excellent as Rootie. Collins nicely differentiates the older, heavily made up Rootie, who is haunted by her brother’s fate and determined to take her grief to Elvis, and the younger, tomboyish Rootie, who absolutely worships Beau and will swallow just about any tall tale that he tells her hook, line, and sinker.
As Beau, Chris Chappell is tall, dark, and handsome; but sometimes a little too soft-spoken to be heard on the last rows of the intimate 99-seat Kennedy Theater, downstairs in the rear of the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. Consequently, only bits and pieces of some of Beau and Rootie’s most intimate and revealing conversations are audible to all audience members. But that’s a small quibble when you consider the three charismatic characterizations and the sensitive staging that make this twin bill of “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” truly a night to remember and cherish.
Note: Anyone who brings Elvis memorabilia to the Box Office when buying walk-up tickets on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday will get in for only $20!
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
presents “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” Thursday-Saturday,
June 16-18 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 19, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday,
June 22-25, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, June 26, at 2 p.m.
Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket
or $50 for two tickets, with special student
and group rates available. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group
Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/
Elvis Presley/Graceland: http://www.elvis.com/.
PREVIEW: Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” Focus on Fans of Rock-and-Roll King Elvis Presley
by Robert W. McDowell
Swivel-hipped singer, movie star, and heartthrob Elvis Aaron Presley (1935-77) is still the King of Rock and Roll to the three vividly drawn characters of “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” two interwoven one-act plays written by Ellen Byron and directed for Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy by Dr. Kenny C. Gannon. This entertaining twin bill will run June 15-19 and 22-26 in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC.
In thumbnailing the plot of “Graceland,” Dramatists Play Service, Inc. writes: “The place is the front entrance of Graceland, the late Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion, the time, five o’clock in the morning, three days before the estate is to be opened to the public. Two ardent Presley fans, Bev [Sherri D. Sutton] and Rootie [Estelle Collins], are camped out before the gates, each determined to be the first to enter the sacred precincts. Bev is a bewigged, middle-aged lady with too much make-up and a brassy down-home style; Rootie is a young and shy and somewhat intimidated by the raucous Bev. Wary at first, the two soon progress from dispute to shared confidences and a growing compassion that, in the end, moves the essentially warm-hearted Bev to defer the place of honor to her waif-like and touchingly sincere rival.”
“Graceland” first earned critical acclaim at the Festival of New Plays in Philadelphia and the November 1983 Shorts Festival presented by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The Philadelphia Courier-Post claimed, “As the two women discuss the depth of their devotion to Elvis, they slowly reveal the sad and funny sides of their lives. By the end of the play, their competition has dissolved into a touching reconciliation.” WFLN-FM in Philadelphia added, “[‘Graceland’] will surprise you in the end by cutting below its slick surface to a climax of unexpected passion.”
“Asleep on the Wind” takes its title from a line in Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams: “…They sleep on the wind and never light on this earth but one time when they die.”
In previewing “Asleep on the Wind,” Dramatists Play Service notes: “The time is 10 years before the time of ‘Graceland,’ the place, a small clearing in Bayou Teche, Louisiana, the ‘special place’ that Rootie refers to in the other play. This is where Rootie and her favorite brother, Beau [Chris Chappell], a handsome, sensitive and restless young man of 30 come to talk in private and to escape her other brothers, two high-spirited hot rodders who seem to delight in pestering their shy, reclusive sister. This time Beau has a double purpose for their meeting: to persuade Rootie to try to stick it out at home and in school and to reach beyond him for companionship; and also to tell her that he has enlisted in the Army and has requested service in Vietnam. Inevitably the news comes as a deep shock to Rootie, but it is the way of its telling that makes the play so touching and evocative and that in the end, allows Rootie to accept the fact that her life, for better or worse, will never again be the same.”
Kenny Gannon, who has directed these one-acts twice since 1995. says, “I consider [“Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” to be] near perfect, full of poetry and lots of heart. [The] challenge is getting people to see beyond the stereotypes of Elvis to his real genius and the humanity of his fans.”
The first one in her family to earn a college degree, and one of Gannon’s very first acting students, Sherri Sutton (Bev) is an actress, stand-up comic, and teacher who recently relocated to New York City. She currently serves as a staff member of the International Schools Theatre Association.
Estelle Collins (Rootie) is a magnum cum laude theater and creative-writing graduate of Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She has worked as an actor, professional fiddler, violin instructor, and most recently here in Raleigh as an individual acting coach and substitute in the Drama Department at Peace College, where Gannon is associate professor of theater.
Chris Chappell (Beau) earned a BFA degree from the Professional Acting Program at East Carolina University in Greenville. He currently serves as the Drama Specialist at the Washington GT Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh.
In addition to director Kenny Gannon, the show’s production team includes set designer Sonya Drum, lighting designer Curtis Jones, and sound designer Richard Coley.
Gannon says the show’s set “focuses on a giant portrait of Elvis.”
Note: Anyone buying walk-up tickets on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday who shows the Box Office their Elvis memorabilia will get in for only $20!
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents “Graceland” and “Asleep on the Wind” Wednesday-Saturday, June 15-18 and 22-25, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 19 and 26, at 2 p.m. in The Kennedy Theater in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $35 per ticket or $50 for two tickets (except June 15th), with special student and group rates available. BTI Box Office: 919/831-6060. Group Rates: 919/828-3726. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/ [inactive 1/06]. Elvis Presley/Graceland: http://www.elvis.com/.