Review: FROM THE HEART Restores June Carter Cash as the Leading Player in Her Own Story

By: May. 05, 2016
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Shannyn Fourie as June Carter Cash
with Andy Lund as Johnny Cash
Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

FROM THE HEART, the intimate show about June Carter Cash from Canned Rice Productions, is currently enjoying a second season at Cape Town's Alexander Bar, Café and Theatre. Adapted from Carter Cash's memoir of the same name, the production is a theatrical montage of vignettes from the country music legend's life story, piecing together a personal portrait of a woman whose life story has become almost inseparable from that of her husband, Johnny Cash.

Born in Virginia in 1929, Carter Cash was a multi-talented entertainer. In addition to being the wife of the man in black, she was a singer, dancer, actress and comedienne who also wrote songs and books. She played four instruments, won five Grammy Awards and released nine albums, all following her debut in the entertainment industry at the age of ten. She was married three times and had three children. She had close friendships with high-profile entertainers like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson, while her cousin, Jimmy, held the highest office in the United States of America. None of these abilities, achievements and associations truly represents the woman in which all of these were held. This production aims to reveal a person obscured by the status of cultural icon.

In her script of FROM THE HEART, Candice van Litsenborgh restores June to the position of protagonist in her own life story. Although her famous husband appears during the production and the songs that are inextricable from their relationship remain very much a part of the show, it is June's personal anecdotes that give the show its solid foundation. Van Listenborgh's adaptation maintains the structure of Carter Cash's book, with each vignette reflecting independently of the others some aspect of June's personality, her relationships with others or her faith in God. Some situations are dramatised; others rely purely on storytelling - all are effectively translated from the page to the stage. Van Litsenborgh has a clear sense of what dramatic mode works best for each particular episode.

Linked with music, the episodic structuring of the show eschews the linear climactic structure that is the undoing of many biographical works. When pursuing this kind non-climactic structure, two moments require careful consideration: the first and the last. The opening sequence of FROM THE HEART is expertly chosen, clearly establishing the sympathetic framework through which Carter Cash is seen in this production. The challenge of bringing FROM THE HEART to a close, on the other hand, is less successfully met. There is the sense that the piece only comes to an end because it stops, rather than concluding with a takeaway moment that matches the strength of its opening moments.

Shannyn Fourie as June Carter Cash
Photo credit: Candice van Litsenborgh

Co-producer Shannyn Fourie plays June in a dream match of actress and character. The role is an ideal one for the Fleur du Cap nominated performer, one that plays to her strengths: her ability to play sensitivity without becoming sentimental, her particular mix of vulnerability and resolute strength, and her ability to put across something more in a song than polished vocals. Whether she is shaking a tambourine and belting out "Jackson" or reliving the experience of a traumatic home invasion, Fourie effortlessly connects with the audience. Even a somewhat slippery grasp on Carter Cash's south-east American accent does not compromise Fourie's instant likeability on stage.

Fourie is joined onstage my Andy Lund, who plays several roles and provides guitar accompaniment throughout the show. Although his musical contributions to FROM THE HEART lend texture and variety to the production, his inexperience as an actor is telling. While he offers a good enough foil for Fourie, he is never as comfortable as she is on stage. He might have an easier time of it were he only required to play Johnny; as it is, he bounces from caricature to caricature without ever finding fully realised characters in the moment of their respective appearances.

In his direction of FROM THE HEART, Richard Wright-Firth has worked carefully to differentiate the various episodes. He allows each vignette space to breathe, working with the simple scenic design and some nifty lighting ideas to create scenes of considerable mood and atmosphere on the tiny stage of the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre.

FROM THE HEART is a play that deserves to grow. It is a carefully conceptualised theatre production that could become a signature piece for Shannyn Fourie. As a theatrical montage, it can still be refined further, particularly in its shifts from sequence to sequence and in its final moments. Nonetheless, its focus on and celebration of Carter Cash as an individual is long past due, a welcome realignment of her story from her own perspective rather than as a supporting player in her husband's narrative.

FROM THE HEART runs at the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre until 7 May. Tickets cost R90-R100 and can be booked online at the Alexander Bar website or purchased at the bar. For telephone bookings and enquiries, call 021 300 1652. Alexander Bar & Café is situated at 76 Strand Street in the Cape Town city centre and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.