RING OF FIRE: An American Epic on Stage

cash0001When Richard Maltby, Jr. was ready to open his new work, Ring of Fire, in 2005, he sensed he had created something important:

“It’s almost a mythic American tale—of growing up in simple, dirt-poor surroundings in the heartland of America, leaving home, traveling on wings of music, finding love, misadventure, success, faith, redemption, and the love of a good woman—and eventually returning home. It’s about the journey of a man in search of his own soul, which is in fact what emerges when you consider all the details of Cash’s life together. That seemed to be a worthy story to put on a stage—and the best part is we could tell it entirely through the songs….

[B]y the end of the show the audience will feel that they have spent the evening in the presence of an extraordinary and real man. In many ways, Johnny Cash wrote and sang about the lives we lead, regardless of where we lead them. If, watching this show, you feel yourself being drawn back to your roots, it isn’t accidental—even if you’ve forgotten what those roots are. I hope, as we bring to life these wonderful songs, we will touch your heart, mind and soul as well, and take you back to part of your life you may want to return to….

Johnny had the soul of a poet, and when you listen to these songs together you hear something in them that is surprising. It’s the story of America. Perhaps it is an America that doesn’t exist anymore, but it certainly exists in our American mythology…

There is in that an American myth, and he lived it. It’s almost archetypal, like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan: a young man leaving home, going out in the world, getting lost, going astray, finding his way back through Jesus and the love of a good woman. It’s not everybody’s Johnny Cash; it might not be anybody’s Johnny Cash, but it’s an essence that emerges from looking at what he wrote.”

A mythic tale of leaving and returning home.

A journey each of us makes.

The story of America. Our American myth.

An archetypal essence.

The audience for the first version of Ring of Fire didn’t quite know what to make of the work. Was it a Las Vegas style tribute musical? Or was it another jukebox musical?

Mr. Maltby went back to his drawing board (the same place he concocts those amazing crossword puzzles) to rethink, tinker, and tweak. The new Ring of Fire is a work greater than the sum of its parts – an overwhelming theatrical experience which needs a trip back into theater history to explain what it is exactly and to account for the source of the work’s dynamism.

From theater’s very beginning, critics and practitioners – from Aristotle, through Schiller and Goethe, to Bertolt Brecht – have compared and contrasted the drama to its ancestor, the epic.

An epic is an expansive narrative story told by a more-or-less detached and reflective reciter, in the third person past tense voice, and set in the historic past. J. R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a modern epic.

The drama began, some historians imagine, when the epic bard began to add impersonation of characters to his narration. Eventually a new form, the drama, developed. Told by multiple first person present tense voices, the drama, by necessity, had to inhabit the present, more limited in scope than the epic. David Mamet’s American Buffalo is a modern drama.

Both epic and drama shared common features. Both were about significant subjects. Both focused on a single individual’s conflicts. (The epic attended to conflicts with the external world, while the drama interested itself on internal or spiritual conflicts.) And, until the modern era, both were written in verse.

Which leads to Ring of Fire.

I believe Mr. Maltby’s work attains it’s unique power by, consciously or unconsciously, employing both the dramaturgical and theatrical conventions of the early fifth century B.C. Greek theater, when the drama was emerging from the epic.

The physical setting for Ring of Fire is what the Greek theater would call a skene, a neutral facade with a door, which  serves as the background for the many locations, and provides the major actors with a place to change their appearance.

Maltby’s score opens  with the main character, the mature Johnny Cash (Kent M. Lewis) serving as the epic’s narrator. He stands outside of the story-to-come by starting with a song written at the end of the hero’s life, “Let the Train Whistle Blow”:

I don’t want no aggravation
When my train has left the station
If you’re there or not,
I may not even know
Have a round and remember
Things we did that weren’t so tender
Let the train blow the whistle when I go

On my guitar sell tickets
So someone can finally pick it
And tell the girls down at the Ritz
I said hello
Tell the gossipers and liars
I will see them in the fire
Let the train blow the whistle when I go

Let her blow, let her blow
Long and loud and hard and happy
Let her blow No regrets, all my debts will be paid
When I get laid Let her blow, let her blow, let her blow

You’ll be left without excuses
For the evils and abuses
Down to today from years and years ago
And have yourself another toke
From my basket full of smoke
And let the train blow the whistle when I go

Let her blow, let her blow
Long and loud and hard and happy
Let her blow No regrets, all my debts will be paid
When I get laid Let her blow, let her blow, let her blow

The aged hero looks back on his life, and postulates an objective for the life we are about to experience. At the same time, the narrator establishes the metaphor upon which the tale will be told – a man’s life is like a train ride.

The choice of metaphor links Cash’s personal tale with a great American mythology surrounding the railroad embedded in country music since  “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad”, a song itself based on an 1886 poem by William Shakespeare Hays.

At the end of the play, just before the mature Johnny Cash exits to be with his Maker, the narrator/hero returns to this metaphor. Mature and dying Johnny Cash sings one of the first songs he ever wrote, “Hey Porter”. In the context of Maltby’s epic drama, Cash speaks to God, the porter on whose train our hero has been riding:

Hey porter! Hey porter!
Would you tell me the time?
How much longer will it be till we cross
that Mason Dixon Line?
At daylight would ya tell that engineer
to slow it down?
Or better still, just stop the train,
Cause I wanna look around.
Hey porter! Hey porter!
What time did ya say?
How much longer will it be till I can
see the light of day?
When we hit Dixie will you tell that engineer
to ring his bell?
And ask everybody that ain’t asleep
to stand right up and yell.
Hey porter! Hey porter!
It’s getting light outside.
This old train is puffin’ smoke,
and I have to strain my eyes.
But ask that engineer if he will
blow his whistle please.
Cause I smell frost on cotton leaves
and I feel that Southern breeze.
Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please get my bags for me.
I need nobody to tell me now
that we’re in Tennessee.
Go tell that engineer to make that
lonesome whistle scream,
We’re not so far from home
so take it easy on the steam.
Hey porter! Hey porter!
Please open up the door.
When they stop the train I’m gonna get off first
Cause I can’t wait no more.
Tell that engineer I said thanks alot,
and I didn’t mind the fare.
I’m gonna set my feet on Southern soil
and breathe that Southern air.

Like the great playwrights of classical Greece, Mr. Maltby knows that one actor cannot encompass the fullness of a great hero. The Greeks used up to three actors to enact their hero. Mr. Maltby uses two to encompass his. Young Johnny Cash (Michael Monroe Goodman) plays the hero’s formative years which the mature Johnny watches, considers, and reflects, as his life literally passes before his eyes.

However, since this hero speaks primarily through his songs, one could say that everyone on the stage embodies some aspect of Maltby’s Johnny Cash – the wonderful singer/musicians Austin Cook, Greg Hirte, Malcolm Ruhl, and Billy Shaffer – and the all-in-one woman in the hero’s life, primarily June Carter Cash (Cory Goodrich). And like their classical ancestors these performers do it all – act, sing, and accompany themselves.

However, it is in the most ineffable of ways which Ring of Fire, like its classic progenitors, overwhelms the audience:  the manifestation of what  The University of Chicago professor of religion Mircea Eliade called the illud tempus – the place where the actual events are always happening, and where the actual persons are always to be found.

The actors and musicians, indeed everyone involved in the creation of Ring Of Fire, seem to have traveled to that place and have brought back to the Mercury Theater stage the uncanny actual manifestations of those times and the actual essences of those people. These performers are not just impersonating characters; they seem to be allowing the actual spirits to inhabit their beings. So we can see Kent M. Lewis doing things with tiny gestures, half glances, and semi-tones, which even Johnny Cash himself may not have realized he was doing. The manifestation is that complete, the openness by the performer is that total.

And Mr. Lewis is not the only performer so possessed. Everyone involved must be, to one degree or another. Michel Monroe Goodman brings the young Johnny just as truly and unselfconsciously as Mr. Lewis does the mature Johnny. They seem different manifestations of one essence.

And then there is Cory Goodrich. Aside from Jesus Christ, no one animated Johnny Cash more than June Carter. Ms. Goodrich is a phenomenon. She gives a Master Class in song styling when she uses “If I Were a Carpenter” to trace with truthful detail and great poignancy the dynamic course of her courtship with Johnny Cash. To see Ms. Goodrich on stage is to witness the Pure Joy of Performing. Dazzling. A perfect match for Kent M. Lewis.

To attend Ring of Fire is, as it was during the dawn of dramatic theater many centuries ago, to step out of time, to see the power unleashed when narrative succumbs to dramatic, when the past actually bursts into the present, right before your eyes.

Director Brian Russell, musical director Malcolm Ruhl, designers Angela Miller, Shelley Strasser-Holland, and Brenda Winstead cannot be congratulated enough for the great feat they have accomplished. To paraphrase a June Carter Cash joke: there are only two reasons to see this Ring of Fire – everything they say and everything they do.

Comments are disabled for this post