We used to call the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas the Bermuda Triangle of theatre going, as people don’t seem to be able to go the theatre and shop at the same time, but the period between Christmas and New Year’s was always boffo. So naturally we were always searching for the perfect holiday fare that wasn’t “A Christmas Carol.”
We found it in 1986 in SAND MOUNTAIN, two one-acts by Romulus Linney (Laura Linney’s dad), one of America’s most prolific and least known playwrights. “A Southern childhood is a very primal thing,” Mr. Linney said in a 1987 interview. “I think Katherine Anne Porter said that what happens to you after you’re 10 years old doesn’t matter very much, but the things that happen before you were 10 matter a great deal.”
In the opener, “Sand Mountain Matchmaking,” a 20-year-old widow past her prime (Cynthia Carle) is courted by three men who don’t understands women at all (Jeff Tyler, John Dennis Johnson, Basil Hoffman) and by one who does (Gary Bisig). In the second act, “Why the Lord Come to Sand Mountain,” St. Peter (Hoffman) and Jesus (Bisig) calls on an Appalachia couple (Carle and Johnson) with a cabin full of 14 children (all played by Jimmy Hartman or Justin Darby) to hear the story the Lord needs to hear about his own childhood.
All the critics loved it; the Daily News headline was, “SAND MOUNTAIN offers superb blend of rich language, profound thought.” Dan Sullivan in the front-page review in the LA Times said, “There’s more going on in this little play, spoken and unspoken, than has been seen in a month of ‘important’ drama in some of our larger theatres. Linney knows his classic myths and his Bible; more important, he knows his people. And if there’s anything left out, Schuck’s actors supply it.”
John Schuck, the journeyman actor probably best known for ‘McMillan and Wife’ and playing Daddy Warbucks on Broadway in ‘Annie,’ was one of the best directors we ever worked with. You can tell how good a director really is by how they work with children, and the kids in this production–along with everyone else– were spot on. John constructed a house for the actors to live in and then let them inhabit it.
Sullivan also said, “The designers of this show deserve equal billing with the actors. Hilary Sloane’s costumes give us the poverty of the region…Jack Forrestel’s roughshod cabin takes on a glow under Ken Lennon’s lights…sound designer Reid Woodbury sends the rain down in torrents—a storm we’re glad to be out of.”
I particularly remember how beautifully Cynthia Carle sang (and you can still hear her singing around town), and how completely Gary Bisig went against the lure of playing the Lord with nobility. In an interview he said, “I worked at being a derelict, a baby, a lizard; anything that’d knock that other stuff from my brain.” He added, “What’s great about Linney is he writes so simply…you can’t ruin it. You can make it as alive as you can, but really, all you have to do is say the line and that tells the story.”
SAND MOUNTAIN was so successful we brought it back with the original cast intact in 1987 and it ran again for months. As Sullivan said, “A good play in a small theatre can become its own world. SAND MOUNTAIN shows us how.”