HART to feature Gary Carden stories

'Land's End' tells tales from WNC and beyond
By Stina Sieg | Jan 23, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg HART's Feichter Studio Theatre will debut "Land's End and Beyond," which features five Gary Carden stories, this Friday night. Above, John Winfield gets into character as Philoctetes, the star of a Carden story of the same name.

There are no fancy sets, expensive costumes or elaborate dance numbers in director Tom Dewees’ newest show — and that’s all by design. Like the short stories on which its based, “Land’s End and Beyond” aims not to be glossy and glamorous,  but instead as human as possible.

The show, a collection of monologues and a mini-play, is based on the stories of Western North Carolina author (and Dewees’ friend) Gary Carden. All peppered with bits of reality and often marinated in regional flavor, the stories give fleshed-out portraits of their characters, warts and all.

“The tales are dark comedy,” Dewees said. “There is something to laugh and feel good about in every story, but there is darkness in each one of them as well. They are all slices of life.”

They are also stories he’s been itching to bring alive for decades. About 20 years ago, Carden asked Dewees to learn and perform “Coy,” one of the show’s acts, for a writing conference in Charlotte. Semi-autobiographical, the monologue tells of a young man who, like Carden, knows hard knocks. As Carden was, Coy was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandfather, among other struggles. Dewees was moved by the tough and touching story all those years ago, and he vowed to perform it again for a bigger audience.

This show, starting Friday at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre’s Feichter Studio, is his chance. And he’s bringing many more colorful Carden characters along for the ride.

“Jesse Racer” follows the life of a Native American man who makes his livelihood “chiefing,” as in playing the part of a stereotypical Indian, on the touristy streets of Cherokee. There’s also “Jimmy Du,” a tale of a paraplegic at the end of his rope, and “Signs and Wonders,” which tells of Shelby Jean, a Georgia girl who falls for (and is impregnated by) a traveling preacher. The humorous mini-play “Philoctetes” is a yarn about the titular character — Phil, if you’d rather — and Ulysses, who are trying to take the ancient city of Troy together as they work through their love-hate relationship.

With each of these little biographies, Dewees appreciates the care and attention Carden has taken to be true to his characters, while still making them sympathetic and relatable. By adding a bit of humor, a little sweet with the sour, Carden has a way of introducing audiences to people they probably wouldn’t meet any other way.

As Dewees put it, “He makes entertaining stories that could be difficult to tell.”

Maybe it comes as no surprise that Carden’s ability to make people identify with souls far different from themselves has even affected Dewees’ cast. At a recent rehearsal, two of the show’s stars spoke of their delight with their new alter egos.

Holly Ann Harmon, who stars in “Signs and Wonders,” admitted that she sees herself in Shelby Jean, in both their gifts and shortcomings. They’re both easily distracted and prone to singing idly without much promptling. They’re also comfortable being genuine and are happy to say the things others won’t.

“She’s herself, no matter what,” Harmon said, smiling with a little pride.

Harmon also mentioned how, this being a studio show, she gets to dig deeper into her character, as there’s really nothing else in her monologue to distract an audience. With the absence of other actors and with hardly a set to speak of, the 19-year-old will have to entertain the crowd with nothing more than her ability to channel Shelby Jean.

“I’m kind of excited to find out what I can do,” she said.

John Winfield, who’s been a mainstay at HART for years, knows the feeling. He feels it before any show. As Phil, Winfield is excited to access the short play’s humorous bits while diving into the heart of man who’s been left on an island for almost decade and has suddenly been asked to help the very person who abandoned him.

He’s also looking forward to the added intimacy of the studio’s bare-bones setting, which he believes pumps up the show’s confessional tone.

As much as he’s anticipating his debut as Phil, however, he almost seems more jazzed about seeing Dewees, his longtime friend, finally take the stage as Coy once more.

“I’ve known Tom as an actor for years and he is so powerful in this piece,” Winfield said. “It’s really something.”

Dewees hopes Carden will feel the same. With any play there’s a hunger to capture the story correctly, he explained, but with this show the desire is certainly ramped up. Dewees wants to do right by Carden’s compassionately written characters and isn’t afraid to describe his trepidation. Of course he’s nervous, but that fear is also part of the fun.

“Life’s not worth living much without taking some chances,” he said. “What greater chance is there than the possibility of making a fool of yourself in front of friends of family?”

And what better place to risk it than on the stage?

“Land’s End and Beyond” stars Eddie Swimmer, Jeremy Bridges, Jack Ross, Holly Ann Harmon, Tom Dewees and John Winfield, and is directed by Dewees. Performance times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27 and 28, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29. Possible holdover dates are Feb. 3-5. For tickets, call 456-6322 Monday through Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. All shows are in the Feichter Studio, 250 Pigeon St., in Waynesville.