JJP stages an evocative ‘Dark of the Moon’ for Halloween

Pretty girl meets witch-boy on a foggy night in the Great Smoky Mountains. Immediately smitten, she falls under his spell and they consummate their love. When they meet again later on a sentient human level, she is pregnant with his child. She must remain true to him, or the spell will be broken and her lover will become a witch again.

What to do, what to do?

Dark_side_of_the_moonThe convoluted story that ensues has elements of comedy and tragedy, says Tom Gray, director of Joe Jefferson Players’ production of “Dark of The Moon,” which opens with a Halloween preview Thursday and runs through Nov. 10.

Based on the ballad about the late, lamented Barbara Allen, the 1944 play by Howard Richardson and William Berney blends hill-country atmosphere, folk mysticism, religious fundamentalism, music and witchcraft.

This would be a dodgy business for some directors, but Gray likes to stir the pot — not as in “bubble, bubble, toil and trouble,” but more like: “Let’s see how this plays in Midtown Mobile.”

The allusion to “Macbeth” is apt, says Gray, who describes the play as “a mix of the supernatural with the everyday, fundamental life of people. … Somewhat like ‘Macbeth,’ it has those Shakespearean-Elizabethan characteristics.”

Another Shakespearean similarity: The original play was written in verse and the dialogue has retained much of its chanting, sing-song quality — much like the responsive chants one hears at tent revivals.

“I’m always looking for something different,” he says. “This is not standard Halloween material. It’s not a spook show by any stretch of the imagination.”

As to how this heady blend of the spiritual and the occult will go over with audiences, Gray laughs. He likes stirring the pot.

The director who brought you a gender-bending “Rocky Horror Show” and a Shakespearean romance that could’ve been subtitled “Romeo & Julio” is up to his broom handle in ghosties and ghoulies and witchy stuff.

“I was looking for something as an alternative to ‘Rocky Horror,’” he says. “I wanted a non-musical, but one that offered some music, which fit the Halloween bill and would get away from ‘Rocky Horror’ as an annual thing.”

Most of the “Rocky” cast has moved on, so the point was moot. Since he became artistic director at JJP, Gray has not produced “Dark of the Moon” but he did appear in the play as a collegian in the role of Conjur Man.

He describes the character as “an old cave hermit kind of a guy who deals in the dark arts and lives on Old Baldy Mountain.” He and Conjur Woman are the old sages to the Dark Witch and the Fair Witch, who also practice magic. Conversely, the valley people are fundamentalist Christians.

That conflict provides the dramatic tension in “Dark of the Moon.”

“It is very much a unique kind of show in that it deals with these religious opposites,” says Gray, “the conjuring and sorcery that clash with the fundamentalist stuff. It’s very different from most plays we do. These are not Neil Simon folks.”

Produced in 1942 under the title “Barbara Allen,” the play was revised two years later as “Dark of the Moon” and was revised again in 1966. That same year, Joe Jefferson Players staged the drama under the direction of then-artistic director John Heald.

Gray’s cast is a mix of familiar and new faces, Gray says: Rick Miller and Sue Hawkins are Conjur Man and Conjur Woman; Bryan Craver is John, the witch-boy; Allie Palmero is Barbara Allen. Supporting players include Jon Green as Preacher Haggler, Patricia Cousineau as Mrs. Summey and Tania Paredes and Mary Phillips, respectively, as the dark and fair witches.

“Dark of the Moon” presents challenges for a director, says Gray. One scene is especially tricky and involves a revival service that grows progressively intense and culminates in a startling climax.

“The church scene is difficult,” he says, “and we’ve been working one step at time, one level at a time.”

Part of the challenge is the inexperience of the JJP cast. For many of them, “Dark of the Moon” will be their community theater debut. Gray says the rehearsal process might take a little more time — as he explains the nuances of blocking and how to tell upstage from downstage — but he wanted it that way.

“It gives this show a tone of realism,” he says. “I’m not getting polished, perfected technique. It’s all coming from inside, so there is a realistic quality that otherwise we would not have.”

Rehearsals are going well, Gray says: “Not to mention the fact that I don’t have to deal with the egos.”

The show also features 13 songs including “Lonesome Valley,” “Down in the Valley,” “Smokey Mountain Gal” and “(Give Me) That Old Time Religion.” Local bluegrass musicians will provide the live soundtrack. To enhance the atmosphere, Gray will use Native American music between scenes.

The director seems unconcerned by any possible anti-Halloween backlash to this fusion of witchcraft and religious fundamentalism.

“I don’t worry about that because … I want to rattle those cages,” he says.

“That was another reason for choosing this play. We need to be reminded of some of this stuff, and just how tragic sometimes our narrow-mindedness can be.”