Even in this fast-paced world of ours, are we ever able to embrace change?
Imagine going back to 1948 to a small Kentucky town in the Cumberland River Gorge, to find people who know little of change. These are the characters currently being examined by Arizona State University's theatre department in Norma Cole's And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth.
This heartwarming story, based on Cole's novel The Final Tide, focuses on a family with a 200-year-old farming legacy that is about to be uprooted to accommodate a Tennessee Valley Authority dam that will flood their valley.
Floating in this watery trouble is Geneva Haw, an eighth-grade girl who desperately wants to remain a child. Her best friend and cousin, Alice, commiserates with Geneva on how much they have to fight with their parents, who want them to start acting like ladies, not marble-playing, guy-slugging tomboys.
In a familiar scene of childhood competition, we learn that Geneva is the best marble player in the valley--so good, in fact, that she is forced to lend back the marbles she has won so that she can play with the other children. Later, she is forced to relinquish her marbles altogether to an older boy, in a wrenchingly touching scene.
On the other end of the age spectrum, but just as resistant to change, is Geneva's grandmother, Granny Haw. Granny refuses to flee the imminent flood because she promised her husband she would be buried with him in the cemetery that is destined to become a lake bottom. This shotgun-brandishing, common-sense lady is the perfect soul mate for Geneva as they share unconditional love and acceptance of one another. Granny is thought by many to be daft, but she displays the upper hand as she outfoxes the government and her family to get her own way.
Less effectively pursued, but ripe for Cole's cutting observations, are attitudes toward women in the rural 1940s and the encroaching role of government in the life of the individual. Dade Haw, Geneva's father, sees no reason for a girl like her to continue her education past the eighth grade: "You don't need an education to be a farmer's wife." Granny observes, "It's always that way with women; somebody needs them so they won't do what they want." One visual reminder of women's traditional role is the long hair worn by the women at the beginning of the story. By the end, Granny, Geneva and Alice all have cut their hair short. Granny says, "Hair holds you down. It keeps you busy but doesn't let you do the things that need to be done."
Cole presents a powerful image of government intrusion as five agents show up on Granny's porch, declaring they will force her to move from her home. Dade also has plenty to say about the intrusion of government on the individual, striking a familiar chord with the audience as we watch Dade and his wife, Mattie, give in to the government's demands a piece at a time--a child's grave, their home and, ultimately, their very way of life.
Cole chases a lot of weighty issues in this piece--perhaps too many issues. For example, family members--both youthful and aged--die. Death might have been a frequent caller in the remote hill country, and Cole surely intended the constancy of the land to be the play's foundation. But her characters seem otherwise too complex and compassionate to dismiss death as an afterthought.
Under the direction of Victoria Holloway, however, this cast poignantly deals with the many life-altering crises the script confronts them with.
They are led by Molly Schaffer as the insightful Geneva, who projects a familiar, awkward adolescence. Stacy Pendergraft, as Alice, matches Schaffer's awkwardness as both girls struggle with maturation.
Susan Donovan's portrayal of Granny is as ornery and stubborn as it is grandmotherly. A wonderful scene develops when Granny decides it's time to die, laying herself out on the kitchen table, arms raised toward heaven, waiting to be ushered into eternity. Geneva finds creative ways to make sure Granny stays alive and accompanies Geneva toward her destiny.
Special mention must be made of the flexibly rugged set designed by Jeff Thomson. Also notable are Emlyn Ellis Addison's music and the transporting sound design of Doug Leonard.
ASU scored big with its last production, Medea's Children. The Tide leaves one empty in some respects, but, as we view this bygone era through the eyes of a teenage girl, it holds a harsh mirror up to our own times.
And the Tide Shall Cover the Earth continues through Saturday, October 28, at ASU's Paul V. Galvin Playhouse, Tenth Street and Mill in Tempe.
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