The Line in the Sand: Stories from the Border
Justice Theatre Project at Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center
Through June 15

This week, The New York Times reports the latest advances in our very own domestic version of ethnic cleansing. The town of Milton, Fla., is now “more law-abiding, emptier and whiter,” according to a story documenting hundreds of Hispanic families, “both legal and illegal,” that have “disappeared” after a local sheriff “found a way around rules allowing only the federal government to enforce immigration laws.” The story noted that many of the undocumented aliens helped the town rebuild after Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

No, there’s little noveltyand less refreshmentin a Southern lawman giving his favorite laws, either written or unwritten, just a little extra enforcement. No safety, no surprise, for that matter, in the too familiar, age-old story of exiles, barely tolerated at the bottom-most rungs of society as a social or economic expedientbefore being pushed out of it altogether.

But the main question co-creators Jared Delaney, Baird Kistner, Kevin Kostic, Gina Pisasale and Elizabeth Pool want us to consider in The Line in the Sand: Stories from the Border is this: What force, what necessity would it take to make us walk across a desert 1,100 square miles in area? For that is the gauntlet each undocumented alien faces when they attempt to cross from Mexico into Tucson, Ariz., the city a border guard interviewed in the play identifies as “the stop in the dam” of current immigration policy.

The artists above, affiliated with the Catholic Relief Services Drama Project, went to the border to interview people affected by the issue, in the mode of Tectonic Theater Project. In addition to the guard, over the one-hour performance drawn from those interviews, we hear from a rancher whose land the people cross, a relief worker whose crew combs the desert in search of those near death, and a forensic doctor and a diplomatic attaché who examine and try to identify the remains of those who don’t make it.

It isn’t always the easiest thing to do. If a relief worker says “sometimes it’s hard to tell there’s a human being in there” about the ones he finds still living, the conditions of the deadsometimes torn to bits by animalsare at times much worse.

The Justice Theatre Project production features serious work by the on-stage quartet of Sean Brosnahan, Deb Royals, Gustavo Schmidt and Maria Elena De Leon Angel-Williams, and a credible performance by Debbie Craft on video. But the company needed a hand or two more for the heavy lifting required by the script. There was insufficient differentiation among the multiple characters Royals had to play in this too-thin cast. Though she and Brosnahan are notable actors, both are stretched too thin here.

On Thomas Mauney’s thought-provoking set, an arid landscape is bordered only by layer upon layer of weathered, dustyand ownerlessshirts and pants. The audience could only be thankful last Friday night that his lights were nothing like the sun. Still, director Carnessa Ottelin’s pacing drags toward the end of this production. It’s clearly a difficult thing to avoid, given the treatment and the subject matter, but the energy crisis that affects the show toward the end should be addressed. Of all works, this one clearly shouldn’t leave the audience experiencing compassion fatigue.Byron Woods

On Agate Hill
Deep Dish Theater
Through June 15

Imbued with vivid storytelling and idyllic live music, On Agate Hill is a one-woman show by Barbara Smith, who adapted the play from Hillsborough author Lee Smith’s most recent novel of the same name. Barbara Smith consulted the author (to whom she is not related) throughout the process of her adaptation, resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable production that pulls you, with steady magnetism, back through history into the winsome world of Molly Petree as she strives to “live so hard and love so much that [she uses herself] all up like a candle.”

The elegantly designed narrative tells Molly’s life story in the late 1800s through her diary and the primary sources of three people in her life: Mariah Snow, the headmistress at her boarding school, Gatewood Academy; Agnus Rutherford, the orphaned Molly’s caretaker; and the mountain man BJ Jarvis, Molly’s eventual cousin-in-law.

Barbara Smith has spent 17 years transforming Lee Smith’s works to the stagemost notably Ivy Rowe, her adaptation of the novel Fair and Tender Ladiesand she performs her latest with sure-footing and contagious warmth. The start of the play finds an older Molly looking back on her diary, fondly remembering her husband, the hard-living musician Jacky Jarvis. From there, Smith transforms into the 13-year-old Molly. Smith demonstrates accurate levels of teenage enthusiasm, but her performance is somewhat lacking when it comes to active-enough body movements for a young girlperhaps the only shortcoming of her characterizations.

The music of Jeff Sebenswho played a fretted dulcimer he made, among other instrumentsunderscores the production, effectively anchoring the culture and setting in western North Carolina with lush Appalachian tunes. The production’s set is simple and efficient, with three stools that act as distinguishing markers for each auxiliary character, and small wooden bleachers from which the young Molly fantasizes and narrates her way through this endearing, gratifying production. Megan Stein

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy at Progress Energy Center
Through June 15

Dearly Beloved
Theatre in the Park
Through June 28

Fans of farce have their pick of shows when it comes to local theater. The annual summer series Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy (an unfortunately literal title during this heat wave) opens its season with Neil Simon’s 1988 play Rumors, while Theatre in the Park has Dearly Beloved by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Both feature energetic direction and performances, and both also suffer from weak scripts.

Rumors takes the form of an upscale drawing-room comedy, with virtually every beat of action punctuated by a slamming door. A dinner party for the deputy mayor of New York has gone horribly awry, with two of the guests (Lynda Clark and Eric Carl, reuniting from Theatre in the Park’s recent production of Angels in America), arriving to find the servants gone, the hostess missing, and the host with a bullet through his earlobe. The situation grows more and more out of hand as more guests arrive, but the plot feels self-conscious and stuck in the 1980s, with lame running gags about crystals and the characters’ similar names. (Note to aspiring playwrights: Naming the male characters “Ken,” “Len” and “Glenn” is mildly clever; having several conversations that point this out is not.)

The actors put everything into their performances (particularly the droll Martin Thompson as bespectacled Lenny Ganz) and, at the performance I attended, managed to remain professional despite a fire alarm that forced an impromptu intermission. The problem is with the material, which is Simon at his sitcom-iest. If that’s your thing, this play is for you.

Dearly Beloved is on the opposite end of the social spectrum from the upper-crust parody of Rumors. The play is the first of a series set in the small town of Fayro, Texas, emphasizing the trials and tribulations of the Futrelle sisters, a trio of middle-aged women who once performed as a gospel group called “The Sermonettes.” If you laughed at that name, then you have an idea of the play’s humor.

Directed by Ira David Wood III, Beloved chronicles the events of a massively disastrous wedding that features government cheese for catering, a UPS delivery man in a too-short robe as the minister, and the bride and groom nowhere to be found. Wood keeps the action moving, but like Rumors, the play has the feel of a broad, 1980s-era sitcom, with running gags about hot flashes and bull insemination. Again, there’s some good work, particularly Larry Evans’ physical comedy as doped-up guest Wylie Hicks, but the script’s crowd-pleasing humor lacks the wit found in an average episode of King of the Hill. Your enjoyment might depend on how many low-budget Southern weddings you’ve been forced to attend. Zack Smith