We’re meant to believe that the souls of several mountain people are tried during the course of Brother Wolf, the music theater drama whose world premiere closes this weekend at Triad Stage in Greensboro. By the looks of things, all of those tests pale when compared to the temptations playwright and director Preston Lane must have faced while writing it.

Populist theater truly is a golden goal, and the humane impulse to place one’s native culture on a stage is certainly no less. In his program notes to Brother Wolf, Lane credits both as inspiring the current work.

But in the Devil’s dramaturgy, we have seen pandering substituted for populism, particularly when applied to Southern literature. And as the Reverend Mears learned a bit too late in God’s Man in Texas (earlier this month at Playmakers Rep), a sermon–or a play–too intent on praising “the folks” rarely gets around to fundamentally challenging them. In the end, a show that simply (and uncritically) echoes back a culture’s fondest received truths has capitulated on something more important than the text it’s recapitulated.

At first, Brother Wolf seems hell-bent in that direction. In this Appalachian variation on the Old English battle epic Beowulf, Lane inexplicably defangs its famous monster, Grendel (or Grin Dell, as he’s known here), when Dan Sharkey is directed to play him as a laughable, ignorant king-sized hick from the hills. By then, Michael Abbott Jr. has already blustered his way through the title character’s first sermon–a comedic monologue whose repeated tagline, “…but I ain’t talking about sin,” has already cued the audience that we don’t have to take Brother Wolf’s theology, such as it is, all that seriously.

In the first 30 minutes, supposedly epic forces for good and evil have both been substantively abbreviated and seated in the realm of low-grade comic stereotype. Welcome to Mass Taste 101.

Why don’t we give up on this show? Because apparently there’s something of a fight still going on, within the work, for its true voice and true soul.

Before the reductive folk tales, an opening frame establishes the present tense–in the form of another tale. “Once there was a time, nothing was like it once was,” observes Elisabeth Ritson as Hessie. “Things was right near awful wrong. Wasn’t nary a soul in this wide world like there once was.”

Her voice–and Lane’s script–rings true in this passage. It’s unfortunate that the playwright rushes this opening frame off stage before it can coherently establish a rural community where a crisis threatens the faith–and the lives–of modern-day believers.

Though I usually refrain from publishing spoilers in reviews, I see no way to discuss the true merit of this show without doing so in this case.

That crisis involves a character potentially as scary as any I ever hope to meet in Christendom.

Consider for a moment: What if Fred Phelps, the anti-gay, self-styled clergyman documented in The Laramie Project, had developed in another Christian fringe group instead–the culture of snake handling believers in parts of Appalachia?

Meet the Rattler Man, a roaring “preacher” who is actually decimating the flock by confronting each with the ultimate spiritual dare: Pick up the poisonous serpent–if you truly do believe. Or turn away, in which case, he notes, “God won’t forget–’cause I’ll be at his side to remind him.”

As performed by Michael Abbott, the Rattler Man nakedly exposes the dark side of country Christianity. But he’s only recognized at the end of the second act, after an hour or more of recapitulated and substantially reduced folktales. Though the people of the present have turned to old stories for guidance, their flimsiness offers little support for the conflict yet to come.

Following the Old English tale, Brother Wolf ultimately must do battle in the lair of Grin Dell’s mother. When all hope seems lost, the ghost of Brother Wolf’s dead wife counsels him to forgive the oversized, spidery hag. The moment he does, he’s immediately redeemed from her clutches. But when all that happens afterward suggests that he never really did forgive the monster, the ethics–and the logic–that this show strives toward remains in doubt.

Clearly, Lane wants the community of faith to break the endless cycle of revenge: the unspeakable algebra of “an eye for an eye” that characterizes, in this worldview, the faith of the Old Testament, along with too much of contemporary sectarian strife. But his staging–perhaps inadvertently–demonstrates just how hard it is to close that deal. Pointedly, it is not forgiveness but something else that thwarts the Rattler Man at the end.

The last element that simultaneously pushes and pulls against mass taste in this production is Laurelyn Dossett’s haunting original music. The song “Sweet Living Waters,” which opens and closes the show, recalls the country waltzes dear to the Primitive Baptists and other folk faiths in this part of the country.

But notice the lyrics: “Another year in the desert / as we wander in pain / our eyes blinded by ashes / our tongues silenced by flames / the lost tribe of Moses / sons and daughters of Cain / we look to the heavens / and we wait for the rain.” In this and a second verse that is similarly, subtly controversial, Dossett reframes believers, redeemer and the River Jordan in ways that first shock and then confirm the conventions of that faith.

At its best, Brother Wolf does the same. But at this point in its development, the work’s struggle for its own soul is still in progress. I hope it ultimately wins that fight.


**** THE FALL TO EARTH, Manbites Dog Theater–Playwright Joel Drake Johnson pushes the limits early: After 10 taxing minutes of matriarch Fay’s non-stop blather, her chilly adult daughter Rachel–and the audience–are both eyeing the door. But just beyond that first inkling of what Rachel’s childhood must have been like, we learn that the pair has reunited, under duress, to retrieve the body of a family member in a distant city. As Fay and Rachel learn of the violence surrounding his death, both inexorably trace the root of that trauma back to the past. It’s a fuse that grows shorter and shorter as things develop.

Johnson craftily rations out the script’s few but sufficient surprises, as accomplished actors Marcia Edmundson (Fay) and Dana Marks (Rachel) probe deeply into a mother and daughter’s estranged relationship–one where several issues involving borders have been left unresolved. Cheryl Chamblee gives admirable support. (Through April 2.)

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.