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'Ballad Hunter' a Victim of Cliches

May 19, 2000

Jenny Laird's "Ballad Hunter" at the Road is a hyper-sentimentalized period piece that substitutes misguided mysticism for a workable plot. Although well-realized by director Marci Hill and a capable cast, Laird's drama about a family of isolated mountain women in 1937 Appalachia falls into a deep chasm of regional cliche and never quite makes it back to the mountaintop.

Gussie (Liz Herron) and her love child, Lotta (Eleanor Zeddies, who shares the role with Jennifer Bowman) eke out a meager living on their rocky land, which Gussie's mother, Hetty (Gwen Van Dam), insists is under a mysterious "curse." And what is the cause of this curse? Not to worry. All will become fuzzy in the second act.

Gussie is viewed with suspicion by her fellow mountain folk, who don't believe her story about being impregnated by a dashing "ballad hunter" all those years ago. In fact, they suspect--as does Hetty--that Gussie got knocked up by Satan himself. The fact that Gussie goes into periodic raptures, fleeing into the woods to gorge on blackberries and then returning in a near-catatonic state, doesn't help her reputation. Nor does Lotta's tendency to cavort like a wild child and sleep in trees.

Cecil (Rick Fitzgerald), a government worker for a rural electrification project, meets Lotta by chance in the backwoods (where else?) and cottons mightily to her frisky innocence. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Buzzy (Carl J. Johnson), a mute burn victim who seems to have some special interest in the struggling womenfolk, silently observes the action from his adjacent junkyard.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 22, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Missing byline--Friday's review of the play "Ballad Hunter" was written by F. Kathleen Foley, whose name was inadvertently omitted.

It's a testimony to these actors that they are seldom overwhelmed by their florid dialogue. In a stoical and strong performance, Herron cuts closest to the bone of her character; Johnson allows Buzzy's humanity and anguish to shine through his mutilated face--scars courtesy of Nancee Waterhouse's impressive makeup design. Desma Murphy's ramshackle rural set is a study in rusticity--right down to a troublesome tree branch that snags a few actors in mid-scamper. David Flad's lighting, Wav Magic's sound and Curtis C's costumes evoke the region with authenticity and restraint. If only the same could be said about Laird's play.

*

* "Ballad Hunter," Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 2. $16. (818) 759-3382. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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