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Archive for Sunday, April 29, 1990

LOOKS AT RELIGION, FAMILY TIES

April 29, 1990

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She refers to her baby as an "unformed" child. The baby has no arms, no legs, no eyes or mouth and no vital organs.

But the baby survives. The mother, her brother and her preacher-father take the baby away from 1940s Arkansas doctors and hit the road.

Thus begins "Tent Meeting," the off-beat play that concludes the Kansas University theater season.

"It's an outrageous comedy," said Jack Wright, the KU theater professor directing the play. "What's fascinating, hopefully, to theatergoers is how it goes in so many different directions. It's full of surprises."

Set in 1946, the play focuses on life inside and outside the trailer the family uses to flee Arkansas and travel to a religious revival meeting in Canada.

Along for the ride is the Rev. Edward Tarbox, played by Jeffrey Hopkins, his daughter, Becky Ann, played by Shannon Broderick, and his son, Darrell, played by Michael Brandt.

Tarbox himself launches into sermons, and Darrell is prone to dreams about World War II battles, although he may never have fought.

ON TOP OF all that, the family keeps getting letters from God, and the daughter must somehow care for her infant.

"It's basically about three people who, because of their situations, are forced to act in outrageous ways," Wright said. "The play's focus is on the relationships between the family members. The two children look toward their father for approval."

The black comedy was written by Larry Larson, Levi Lee and Rebecca Wackler, three Atlanta playwrights who work with the Southern Theatre Conspiracy, where it was first produced. It went on to play in the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., in 1985 and off-Broadway in 1987.

Although the script depicts an evangelical-style preacher, it isn't a commentary on scandals of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart variety.

"It does deal with misguided evangelists, and there are obvious parallels to Bakker and Swaggart," Wright said. "But the script predates all that. It has more to do with aspects of religion and family. It's a lot broader than that."

FOR JEFFREY Hopkins, the Prairie Village junior playing the minister, the role wasn't too far afield from his experience.

"The preaching is a lot like acting," Hopkins said. "He's not playing a part when he preaches, but he uses a lot of performance techniques to bring his points across."

But in other ways the extreme closeness of the Tarbox family is something akin to a foreign experince.

"I don't have that kind of relationship with my father," Hopkins said. "I don't have nearly the need for approval that these children have."

For the production, Wright and his scenic designer, graduate student Robert Donlan, have designed projections to suggest scene changes as the family moves along the highway. Donlan has also designed a beat-up, tilted trailer.

"IT'S A fairly primitive life," Wright said. "They have a wood-burning stove, and they have no running water where they stop. They drive at night with the lights off, at the father's insistence, and they sleep during the day.

"These people on orders from the father had to condense their entire life into this small trailer," Wright said."

The opening scenes, when the family takes the baby away, has the actors climbing up the sides of the theater. And the baby itself requires a great deal of technical planning.

"We have to make it move without having any limbs," Wright said.

What drove Wright to direct this play in the first place is its unusualness. It's aimed at adult audiences, and it could provoke a lot of discussion among those who see it.

The play is as strange as the Tarbox baby.

"It's a unique, mystical child," Wright said. "The play creates all kinds of interesting situations."

"Tent Meeting" will be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. May 6 at the Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall. Tickets are available at the Murphy Hall Box Office.

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