Pickin', Preach'n, Pickles
by Kathryn Schiliro
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
The sanctuary of Madison's First United Methodist Church was transformed last week; not by appearance, but by the sight of starched, denim overalls and sounds of twangy, old-timey gospel music that resonated from the altar.
The church acted as the backdrop for the Madison Community Theater production of "Smoke on the Mountain," a musical comedy, which takes place in the rural South during the economically depressed days of 1938, about the Sanders Family's return to the "Saturday Night Gospel Sing" scene.
The production follows the Sanders Family, after their bus wrecks outside town, to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in dill-covered town of Mount Pleasant, North Carolina (also the home of the fictitious Mount Pleasant Pickle Plant) where Pastor Oglethorpe has requested the help of the family in livening up his flock. And the Sanders Family certainly doesn't shirk their duty, especially with it being their first show following an extended hiatus from the gospel-singing circuit.
In between more than 20 gospel standards, members of the family practice their newly found preaching skills; admit to a, shall we say, vocally conservative crowd a love for the taste of beer; and equate a personal relationship with the Lord to the flight of a Junebug with one leg tied to a string.
The production, which took place last Thursday and Saturday nights, took six weeks for the cast to put together; for director Kathleen Bryant, however, the musical's trip to Madison was years in the making.
Bryant initially saw the production in graduate school and fell in love with it immediately; she saw it again in Gainesville, where the performance is slated to take place every other year. (Because "Smoke on the Mountain" is in such high demand in Marietta, the local Theatre in the Square puts on the production yearly.)
"I've always wanted to do this show," Bryant said.
And the music has a lot to do with why people tend to favor the production. Songs in the musical include "I'll Fly Away," "Jesus is Mine," "Nothing but the Blood" and "Smoke on the Mountain," among many other gospel favorites.
"I've heard it [gospel music] all my life," Bryant said. "It's hard not to like it."
The 13-member ecumenical cast (members came from Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal and Methodist backgrounds) included the Sanders Family-wife Vera Sanders played by Jane Shytle; husband Burl Sanders, David Shytle; brother Stanley Sanders, Stan DeJarnett; twin daughter Denise Sanders, Katherine Key; twin son Dennis Sanders, William Prior; oldest daughter June Sanders, Emily DeJarnett; Mary Ann Sanders, Kathleen Bryant-as well as the "Amen Corner," or Ms. Maude, played by Kim Neidlinger and Ms. Myrtle, played by Sandy Sirmans as well as the bluegrass band (in this case, members of Madison's own Ernest Folly Band) needed for the show, including a banjo, played by Bob Prior; acoustic guitars, Jeff McLeod and Mike Rice; and upright bass, played by Jon Tonge. Aside from acting in the production, David Shytle played mandolin and Stan DeJarnett played dobro. The rhythm section-or tambourines, harmonica, high hat, washboard, jug and cowbell-was made up of other, non-instrument playing members of the cast.
Ironically enough, it is the parts that don't really play instruments that have the ability to truly steal the show-June Sanders, the oldest Sanders sister who can't sing and is instead forced to, well, interpret the lyrics and play the tambourine, and the "Amen Corner," two biddies, reminiscent of "The Muppet Show's" Statler and Waldorf (the two old men who sit in the balcony seats to heckle the cast and interject commentary on the show), who also act as the church's super-conservative benefactors.
While the script calls for the style of acting to be "naturalistic," walking the line between acting naturally and not as a caricature can prove to be a challenging aspect of this play for it's actors.
Glad Cryman, who played Mount Pleasant Baptist's Pastor Oglethorpe, works as a youth pastor at Greensboro's Grace Fellowship. Because his father is also a minister, Cryman sought his approval before agreeing to be cast in "Smoke on the Mountain." He didn't want to appear irreverent, but he did see ties to how the musical relates to church life, even today.
"It's a tough balance between doing stuff new and being old and rigid," Cryman said, referencing the point in the production where the Amen Corner, perturbed at the Sanders sisters' dancing, attempts to walk out. He credits the testimony of Stanley (the one-time chain gang working, beer-loving Sanders Family member who has since renounced his sinful ways and turned to the Lord) with bridging the gap.
"It's almost like laughing at yourself," Cryman said.
As anticipated by Bryant, those in attendance were more than receptive to the production.
"You are touching our roots," one audience member said, while another was surprised by just how entertaining this take on worship could be.
"This is the most fun I've had in church in a long time."
For more photos of "Smoke on the Mountain," see the online Photo Gallery at www.morgancountycitizen.com.
Printed in the June 11, 2009 Edition.