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Review: Cumberland County Playhouse's DUCK HUNTER SHOOTS ANGELS Makes You Laugh, Makes You Think

Ten Years After The First CCP Production of the Mitch Albom Comedy, it Still Works its Magic

Review: Cumberland County Playhouse's DUCK HUNTER SHOOTS ANGELS Makes You Laugh, Makes You Think
Michael Ruff, Jason Ross and Britt Hancock in Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.

You have to hand it to Mitch Albom (the well-known sportswriter turned memoirist turned playwright turned heartland media mogul): the man knows how to craft a tale certain to appeal to a wide swath of his audience, manipulating and cajoling them along the way with good humor and sometimes incisive wit before going for the jugular of the sentimental with a dramatic payoff that's sure to wring tears, sell tissues and send the aforementioned audiences into the real world with something to think about.

And while some in the audience might be more familiar with his Tuesdays With Morrie or The Five People You Meet in Heaven, both of which began as best-selling books, you can bet that by the final scene of Duck Hunter Shoots Angel (his slightly acerbic, borderline cynical, yet ultimately moving stage comedy now onstage at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse through June 24) much affection for the story and its characters will be expressed during the curtain call.

Directed by Donald Fann - who also helmed the production of Duck Hunter... I first reviewed almost ten years earlier to the day I saw this latest iteration - the play is full of homespun humor and good-hearted wisdom even as it pokes rather gentle fun at Southerners and their predisposition to shooting, mounting, grilling or otherwise maiming any wildlife they stumble across. No real animals are harmed in the making of Duck Hunter Shoots Angel (nor are any genuine angels, for that matter), but some stereotypes are skewered and cliches upended during the two acts in two hours of each performance.

Starring a cast of veteran CCP actors who are as beloved by their loyal followers as any group of actors could ever hope to be (which comes from a repertory company of performers who have been seen in a wide range of roles over the years, thus endearing them to the people in the dark), Duck Hunter Shoots Angels focuses on a pair of somewhat dimwitted and bumbling brothers named Duane and Duwell (wonderfully played by Britt Hancock and Jason Ross, who manage to elicit every possible reaction to the brothers' hijinks, yet keeping them grounded and, we daresay, believable and oh-so-lovable) who can't shoot straight for the life of them, but who somehow manage to bag an angel that mysteriously appears in their homegrown swamp somewhere in Alabama.

When news of their escapades reach the offices of a New York-based supermarket tabloid The Weekly World and Globe (think The Weekly World News, only cheesier and tackier, with stories made up of whole, if fictional, cloth), the publisher (Nashville actor Bradley Moore makes a winning CCP onstage debut) sends his best writer (Daniel W. Black, the everyman actor is as charming and down-to-earth as ever in the role) and best photographer Lenny (played by Michael Ruff, whose comic timing and way with a turn of phrase serves him well) to the scene of the crime, as it were, to get the exclusive story. But when other, more widely respected (and, thus, more believable) news services get in on the act, all manner of subterfuge and histrionics ensue.

Review: Cumberland County Playhouse's DUCK HUNTER SHOOTS ANGELS Makes You Laugh, Makes You Think Along the way, the Yankee interlopers (well, Black's character Sandy did spend time in Birmingham a couple of decades earlier before getting his big break in the Big Apple) deliver their fish out of water story with some cheeky humor leavened with oftentimes unexpected doses of reality, and as the pair investigate the story unfolding in the swamp, their penchant for cynicism is pushed aside by understanding and, rather surprisingly, grace. Sandy's Alabama backstory provides for a particularly moving, if predictable, dramatic device that unfolds gradually amid the PBR, doughnuts and other assorted junk foods found in a roadside convenient market, overseen by a young woman named Kansas (Rachel Lawrence delivers the goods while proving the age-old point that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or the character by her surroundings).

Deanna Helgeson, hamstrung by the playwright's limitations on her character to prolong the suspense, nonetheless is appealing and attractive, ensuring that all eyes are upon her during her brief yet meaningful scenes. Bill Frey is impressive as the "Voice" (not to be confused with the TV show - after all, we are led to believe he might in fact be The Guy Upstairs) and Cory Clark shows remarkable versatility and restraint as part man/part alligator who becomes sort of a silent Greek chorus throughout the play.

As farfetched as any plot synopsis of Duck Hunter Shoots Angel may sound, Albom's way with words gives audiences much to think about even while they are guffawing at the onstage antics of Duane, Duwell, Lenny, Gator Man and company. In fact, it may afford the opportunity for a great deal of self-reflection that's an essential part of our recovery from recent times.

John Fionte's set design provides the ideal visual backdrop for the play, which is beautifully lighted by Jeremiah Stuart. Sound design, by Matt Bundy and Josh Hobbs, ensures that every line is heard as intended and Kimberly Stark's costumes outfit the characters in stageworthy finery.

Duck Hunter Shoots Angel. By Mitch Albom. Directed by Donald Fann. Stage managed by Josh Helgeson. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission. Through June 24. For tickets, call the CCP box office at (931) 484-5000.

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