The Night Hank Williams Died

Austin Playhouse's revival of 'The Night Hank Williams Died' boasts a strong script and acting but so carefully skirts anything ugly or messy that it's all surface: bloodless, polished, and clean

Arts Review

The Night Hank Williams Died

Austin Playhouse, through Nov. 19

Running time: 2 hrs, 10 min

The Night Hank Williams Died is a traditional piece of theatre. Written by a well-known writer, directed by an experienced director, acted by Equity-certified actors, housed in a pretty theatre with comfy red seats. There is nothing edgy or edge-of-your-seat about this show. That is almost unique in a city that seems incredibly focused on new and experimental work. (The night after seeing Hank, I saw Rubber Repertory's At Home With Dick 2, sat in a bean bag chair on the floor of Dick's living room, and listened to heart-wrenching ditties about his father's crippling Alzheimer's.) Austin is fortunate to have such a progressive theatre scene. Most theatre, the dominant theatre, is more along the lines of The Night Hank Williams Died: competent (or not) revivals of the tried-and-true.

Austin Playhouse's staging of Larry L. King's 1989 drama is thoroughly pleasant. The script is strong. The acting is committed. The directing is playful. But even as the story grows dark, the production carefully skirts anything ugly or messy. We observe a shooting take place on stage, but we are never subject to any blood. We observe a man trash his bar, but nothing breaks. We never quite sink into this world, only hover at its surface – bloodless, polished, and clean.

One can sit back and enjoy. One can even nod off for a spell without fear of missing much. The Night Hank Williams Died is a gist play. The gist is: small town, lost love, broken dreams, and dead-end future. The setting is Stanley, Texas, in the summer of 1952. Though it all plays out relatively predictably, it's worth your time to tune in. King has written a beautiful character in Gus, the barkeep – comparable to Chekhov's Firs in The Cherry Orchard. By the end of the play, we are left alone with him and his heartbreak. Michael Stuart does an awesome job with this role, veering from spot-on comedic timing to astonishing anguish.

All of the actors here bring strong work to the stage. There is a quiet and chemistry-filled jukebox dance between actors Zach Thompson and Lara Toner, the play's ingenues. Thompson's Thurmond Stottle is at times a backward backwoods loser, at times an endearing young man burdened by being "a dreamer in a dreamless land." Toner's Nellie Bess Powers Clark is a smart 1950s woman whose pain and discomfort come from trying to please the men around her. David Stokey is unsettling as the power-abusing sheriff. Janet Hurley Kimlicko, playing Nellie's religious mother, gracefully handles a scene where she comforts herself with a hymn. Huck Huckaby is a treat whenever he appears on stage as Moon Childers, the wise and drunken friend of Gus.

Director Don Toner has an eye for opportunity. He takes simple scenes and infuses them with physical life. Two men exchanging beer and money at the bar becomes a cadence of slamming sounds. Two young lovers at a drive-in movie turns into a lazzi of him vs. her – Thurmond wants to watch the movie; Nellie wants to talk. Down to the Alka-Seltzer dissolved in a glass of beer, Toner's production is skillfully detailed.

As the audience got up to leave, a woman behind me remarked, "What a joy," while someone in front of me said, "I didn't know it was going to be a downer." When a play about heartbreak is this easy to take, one doesn't take much from it. The Night Hank Williams Died is a highly recommendable night at the theatre. I am not sure what you will learn about life that hasn't been articulated a million times over, but the work is good. So, in conclusion, go see At Home With Dick 2.

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