Virginia Stage Company’s RING OF FIRE: Epic Entertainment

Reflecting on the Virginia Stage Company’s season opening production of RING OF FIRE, I couldn’t help recalling the first RING OF FIRE we saw, the thrilling Mercury Theater production in Chicago of May 2015. Much of what I wrote at that time applies to the Wells Theater offering:

“When 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 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 its 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 projection surface for the many locations, and provides the major actors with a place to change their appearance.”

The Virginia Stage RING OF FIRE introduces a collection of five highly skilled singing-actor/musicians, who present, as a group, a kaleidoscopic mosaic of the person known as Johnny Cash.

It seems that no two productions of RING OF FIRE can ever be alike: each individual director assigns the narrative lines, song lyrics, and music among the various performers. The goal is not so much a complete detailed physical and psychological characterization of a man, as an evocation of a unique and charismatic heart, spirit, and soul.

In Maltby’s score the epic’s narrator is divided among many personalities. They periodically step outside of the story to advance the hero’s journey.

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. Here Mr. Maltby uses five to conjure his.

Director Amy Jones eschews any notion of rendering a physical or vocal impersonation or impression of Johnny Cash through vocal or physical mannerisms. The most we find here is Ben Hope’s homage to the  in-concert Cash. The country maestro had a unique way of relating to  his fellow on stage musicians, his audience (he was one of the first modern concert performers to turn his back on the audience while playing), and his duet partner, his wife. Instead, Hope focuses on Cash’s supernatural energy and zest for live, to highlight the two moments in the hero’s life when optimism fled. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” reveals a devastated, drug addicted Cash,  a production highlight, while “I Still Miss Some One” and “Why, Me Lord” embody the profound grief when Cash’s soulmate is taken by death.

Most memories of Johnny Cash are of a man weighed down by the woes of the world. This Johnny Cash acknowledges the world’s sorrows with a song “Man in Black”, but doesn’t let them paralyze him. Mr. Hope’s enthusiasm for performance almost makes us forget that his lovely tenor/baritone voice lacks the iconic deep bass/baritone Cash tones. However, so strongly does the production evoke Cash’s spirit, that one can almost mystically hear the rich resonant tones through their very absence.

Everyone on the stage embodies some aspect of Maltby’s Johnny Cash – a cadre of wonderful singer/musicians. Gill Braswell’s guitar licks can’t be beat, and he brings down the house with “Delia’s Gone”. Sean Powell ‘s musicianship is indispensable to the ensemble, and he shines with “Cocaine Blues”. Emily Mikesell embodies the earth-mother maternal life-force so necessary to Cash’s well-being. She literally stops the show with a “Get Rhythm”, the likes of which you may never hear again. Finally, Katie Barton assays the June Carter persona with uncanny likenesses. From her sassy tune popping shoulders to her skirt-swishing wrists, Ms. Barton really is June Carter. And in real life she is Mrs. Ben Hope, a fact which gives this acting duo an onstage chemistry, a truthfulness not available from even the finest actors. Think Southern/Marlowe, Lunt/Fontanne, Burton/Taylor, Olivier/Leigh. Spousal nuance just can’t be learned or imitated. Consequently, the audience is treated to lovely versions of “Ring of Fire”, “Jackson”, “I Walk the Line”, and “If I Were a Carpenter”.

Like their classical ancestors, these RING OF FIRE performers do it all – act, sing, and accompany themselves. The group coalesces beautifully with almost “blood-harmony” versions of “Far Side Banks of Jordan”, and “Angel Band”. These two songs alone are worth the price of admission..

It is in the most ineffable of ways which RING OF FIRE, like its classic progenitors, touches 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.

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 bursts into the present, right before your eyes.

Director Amy Jones, and set designer Derek Smith must be congratulated for the 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.


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