Review: DARLIN' CORY Drags Down a Searing Truth at The Alliance Theatre

The musical premiere has an original score by Philip DePoy and Kristian Bush

By: Sep. 28, 2021
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Review: DARLIN' CORY Drags Down a Searing Truth at The Alliance Theatre Southern Gothic is coming back, y'all, and I am totally here for it. DARLIN' CORY at the Alliance Theatre is a dark folk tale set in the 1930s Appalachian hills, far away from any sort of sin that could tear through their tight-knit community from the inside out.

Full of secrets, moonshine, and scintillating music, the show follows our heroine turned hero Clara as she navigates her life as an outsider. If you're a fan of folk music, you will be a huge fan of this show.

First and foremost - the music. I cannot shut up about how beautiful the music is in this show. Haunting harmonies, delicious dissonance, and pounding beats that hit so deep they touch your bones. Every song in this show is a piece of art. So that plus the lyrics, live musicians, and stellar performances from all the actors equals a special treat for your ears.

The music for this show does the heavy lifting, and at times the story suffers from lack of equal attention to the book. With a rushed ending, confusing casting, and questionable representation, I sometimes felt as if the storytelling didn't support just how incredible this music is.

(If you wanna obsessively listen on repeat with me you can find it on Spotify below)

On the sister side of that coin, all the technical aspects of DARLIN' CORY are equally as impressive, if not more at times. Imagine whole buildings floating effortlessly across the stage as doors appear from nowhere, benches glide in from the darkness as hanging trees frame every picture with a sense of eerie weight.

Imagine all actors donning period-appropriate clothes so you never forget where you are and choreography so smooth the transitions into dancing seem seamless. Bright red apples, burned books, jar after jar of moonshine - each detail was meticulously, lovingly, thought out and perfected for the stage.

One of my favorite moments from the show was the very beginning. A gunshot rang out, the stage turned completely red, and everyone moved in slow motion. Hook, line, and sunk.

The lighting design is incredibly effective. It plays with the set design to create that evening feeling of those last little bits of sunshine pouring in through the slats of your window blinds lighting up your room with gold tiger stripes. I won't spoil the show for you, but I will say that it must have been an incredible feat to suspend a house on fire over the middle of the stage.

Gillian Rabin had a lot on her shoulders as she played the titular role, but she handled it well with a deft sense of reacting. At times, it was more interesting to watch the way Rabin watched other characters than to watch the main action of the show.

Rabin's transformation from quietly observing on the sidelines to shooting her way out of a burning building felt like watching a phoenix be reborn over and over again. As if walking through fire was the most natural way to change in the world, and Rabin's focus and presence are to thank for that.

Asia Rogers as Honor, sometimes the love interest, sometimes just a friend, has the perfect aura of a true ingenue. Honor is a quiet young girl doing her best to find ways to sate her curiosity while dodging her parent's wrath. Rogers bounced and preened across the stage with such genuine delight I couldn't help myself but get caught up in her bright spell.

I am curious why The Alliance decided on a color-blind casting for the role of Honor. There is no doubting Asia Roger's skill, talent, and excellent execution of the role. However, at times I was so confused by her role in the story that it took me out of the moment as I tried to connect dots that should have been obvious. In a story about long-hidden secrets, I kept expecting a new secret to be revealed about her identity, but it never came.

Marcello Audino surprised me in his role as Tucker, the shopkeeper from out of town. During the first act, he's more of a background character as Brody, thinking he's the main character, takes center stage. But in the second act, Audino's singing prowess and dazzling charm shine as Tucker becomes a crucial guide for the brand-new boy in town.

The real star-crossed lovers of the show were Jimez Alexander's Gaither and Kelli Dodd's Ivy. Their energy is infections, and their characters are drawn to each other like the sound of two rare-stone magnets colliding. Alexander makes me think of a charming rugby player who's always in the mood for a bit of music and moonshine.

Ivy struts across the stage like a shooting star, always pipping up at the chance to chase some mischief. Kelli Dodd's passionate solo that ends the first act blew me away. I literally said out loud, "Wow, what a set of pipes," and my friend turned to me, quietly screaming, "I know!!"

The true power in this play comes from the moms. Being a single mother is difficult, and I can't imagine how difficult it was for Mama Grace - a stoic Rhyn McLemore. Alone with a child in the middle of nowhere, Mama Grace had an automatically regal presence as Rhyn McLemore's gravitas held the gentle demeanor of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. She was all love.

Foiling Mama Grace is Katie Deal's Mrs. Truegood. A much more rigid woman, Truegood is the wife of the local pastor, Bailey. She's a Biblical woman to a fault and the perfectly domestic partner - but with a dark secret. It's in moments of silence that Deal's incredible vulnerability shines through. Deal's attention to the detail of her character's emotional truth brought me to tears in the final act.

John Bobek as Brody made me immediately hate his guts, and I hated him the whole show. Bobek is a perfect example of the fact that sometimes an effective performance is viscerally disgusting. At times, Brody almost seemed real as Bobek lumbered around drinking and bullying.

Jeremy Aggers as Bailey has a sinister, precise, and calculating presence as if he's holding everyone at knifepoint when he speaks. Once he reminded me of a Kubrick villain - his forehead tilting towards the audience, shadows covering his eyes, and staring us down as if willing his own wickedness to light fire to the auditorium so he could watch us burn.

To be completely honest, Rob Lawhon's Doug is my favorite character. Doug navigates the story with a sense of childlike sincerity. Lawhon's little choices - a wave without looking, a bit of toe-tapping - inspires a sense of verisimilitude in how confidently casual he is.

To be even more honest, I felt uncomfortable with the way the Native American characters, Alex and Cass Crow, were represented in the show. They seemed to fit into an old, tired, "mystic narrator" trope, caricatured on the outskirts of the story.

Equal and authentic representation on stage is near and very dear to my heart. I'm especially passionate about authentic Native American representation because of a summer I spent working with the Absentee Shawnee Nation (who have ancestral claims in the Appalachian Mountains) at an outdoor theatre. Within the first few moments of the show, I caught myself thinking: "Why are we still portraying them this way?" I believe we can do better.

Jewl Carney (Alex Crow) and Maria Rodriguez-Sager (Cass Crow) did an excellent job with what they were given, captivating the audience's attention from the get-go. Together they stole scenes with their tantalizing ridiculousness - the definition of a dynamic duo.

The way this show ends is something special. After such a harrowing last half hour, everyone comes together to say goodbye - even the dead. During final bows, I was struck by how wonderfully rare it is to create and share art. DARLIN' CORY at The Alliance Theatre is a powerful story about how secrets don't keep.

DARLIN' CORY runs through October 3. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets! Listen to the whole album on Spotify: