Kerrmoor – Bad News Bear
A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX
Kerrmoor is fascinating. The new play by Baltimore playwright Susan McCully is supported by excellent production values, strong acting and a script that grips you from the first mention of a black bear impregnating Appalachian maiden Mona Kerr.
Kerrmoor isn’t just any old play filling a slot in a company’s season. The production has a lot of people and groups supporting it. The show is also getting three-way action as part of the D.C. Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, Free Fall Baltimore and Charm City Fringe. Officially it is a co-production between the Interrobang and Strand theater companies, but it’s massively supported by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Not only is the production funded by a grant from UMBC, but the school is where McCully, director Eve Muson and other designers teach and from where most of Interrobang’s founders and actors graduated.
There is a lot invested in this production, and it shows. Set designer Gregg Schraven (a UMBC instructor whose credits include productions at Everyman Theatre and Rep Stage) has created a sturdy, pretty-enough-to-be-in-an-Anthropologie-photo-shoot set of white, distressed wood boards serving as the outside of a shack in Western Pennsylvania, where the mountain folk of Kerrmoor are about to sacrifice the “chose” young woman of the village. Adding to the “Appalachian Greek tragedy” feel is Linda Dusman’s original music recorded at UMBC’s recording studios, with simple, effective melodies conveying the story’s drama through guitar, mandolin, bodhran and accordion music and an a cappella chorus of voices chanting throughout the long night when the story takes place. Completing the scene-setting is Adam Mendelson’s attractive and varied lighting design effectively conveying shifts in mood and time.
Kerrmoor revolves around a ritual in an insular backwoods community where a “pure” young woman is “chose” to dress up like a bear and have her heart cut out by her mom. So, a pretty standard Saturday night in western PA. Although the western PA-raised McCully has said this story is deeply personal, apparently the bear, heart-cutting out thing is not literally based on McCully family gatherings. McCully is not only the playwright, but also takes on the lead role of Agatha, a former “chose” woman 20 years shunned from Kerrmoor for getting pregnant, and therefore not being pure enough to absorb all the worries of her community and be murdered by her mom. But Agatha can’t hide from filicide, and is summoned back to Kerrmoor when her now-“ripe” illegitimate daughter, Lorna, is deemed the “chose.”
Director Eve Muson pulls very nice work from her talented cast, and keeps the story moving at a clip with dynamic staging. McCully as Agatha digs into the deep-seeded loneliness and despair of a woman intrinsically repelled by her community’s beliefs, yet still in the grasp of wanting to belong, especially to the daughter she was forced to abandon at birth. The daughter, Lorna, is played by Interrobang artistic director Katie Hileman, who beautifully captures the torment and confusion of wanting to live and forgive her estranged mother and the duty of being selected to take away all the cares of her tribe by sacrificing herself. The women have many moving exchanges in the play. One scene in which both strip down to their underwear before beginning the ritual is particularly powerful for the vulnerability each embraces. Kerrmoor’s third character is Lorna’s half-sister Kylie (Erin Hanratty), the tribe’s prophetess who has a vision of Lorna being chosen to be sacrificed. While Hanratty does a fine job of portraying the character’s innocence and fear, the play doesn’t really need the character. There is enough meat for Agatha and Lorna to carry the story.
The play doesn’t give you a break. It straps you in, and you’re off until the bloody end. While some of this is due to the stellar performances, the play requires much attention because of confusing storylines and equally hard-to-follow Appalachian patois. McCully has said in interviews this is a first draft, and that she would have liked to have solely focused on honing the script rather than doing double duty as lead actor and playwright. The idea of an Appalachian Greek tragedy is genius, but some of the subplots and the way the primary plot unravels can be worked more. The implication that Lorna is being sacrificed so her father can sell his land to fracking big wigs and make a killing in the depressed economic setting is very interesting, but it’s not fully developed. Also thrown in to Kerrmoor is some racism, which shows one of the biases of rural white America, but doesn’t serve the plot or the characters. Lorna’s implication that she got randy with a black guy Agatha works with seems out of left field, as does the mention of a “moslum” sighted at the store. The script is trying to do too much, when it already has a strong central story. But this is what you accept with new theater. Kerrmoor isn’t perfect, but it’s exciting and captivating.
BOTTOM LINE: This brand-new script is a bit hard to follow, but powerful performances, phenomenal production values and a final scene with very non-Care Bear violence makes Kerrmoor an impressive production and a Charm City Fringe must-see show.
Running at Emmanuel Episcopal Church until November 15th
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