As Johny Duke Left gets underway, after a beautiful opening song performed by the talented (and sadly under-utilized) King Singers choir, Johny Duke Simmons, a hard-living McClellanville shrimper, is about to be laid to rest. His brother, Tucker Simmons (Robert Forrest), nervously fretting over the eulogy he is about to deliver, is struggling with how best to deal with his options after Johny Duke’s death.
Torn between continuing to run the family shrimping business on his own and making a new life for himself in New Orleans, Tucker pulls sip after sip from his flask, weighing his options. Complicating factors quickly become evident: a love interest, Alida (Peggy Trekker White), tempting him to stay in McClellanville, but only if he gives up his flask; the possibility that his brother might have been murdered, hinted at by the local sheriff, Fredina (Teresa Smith); and an evident bond to the place he’s lived his whole life, a bond he might not be ready to break just yet. With a set-up like this, Johny Duke Left could easily go a few different directions, from a madcap farce to an earnest coming-of-age story.
Then, Tucker’s brother, the same Johny Duke (Henry Hagerty) whose funeral he is attending, shows up, in the form of a ghost (or, as Johny Duke prefers, “apparition”), and things get complicated.
This isn’t to say that the play gets confusing. A strength of Johny Duke Left is its straightforwardness. Each character has a very distinct voice, and they each serve a distinct purpose. The plots follow a clear, linear arc. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. This strength is also a weakness, however. Not much is left to context; when Johny Duke explains what rules apply to his continued presence as an apparition (he can only curse five times, he can only tell the truth, etc.), it’s exactly the kind of situation teachers have in mind when they suggest writing pupils “show” rather than “tell.” That said, the cap on cursing was a nice, character-specific, touch; the audience responded each time it was returned to as the play went on.
To be sure, Johny Duke Left has many bright spots. While most of the actors betray moments of nervousness or miss the occasional cue, they all have a clear concept of the character they’re playing, and do a fine job at maintaining their roles. Hagerty (also the play’s writer) displays an infectious enthusiasm and a natural gift for comedic timing. Kenneth Charles Graham, as Pinckney Chastain, one of the primary villains, strikes a nice balance between smarmy and unstable, which suits the character well. In the end, though, there’s just too much going on, and a few too many missed cues, for the play to establish much momentum as comedy, mystery, suspense, or human drama. The audience isn’t given enough insight into the brothers’ relationship to care much about either Johny Duke’s death or Tucker’s life. Alida somehow manages to be both naive and calculating, both loyal and fickle, and it’s hard to invest much in the outcome of her and Tucker’s relationship. As the play, competently staged and acted, comes to a close, the major conflicts are all resolved, but the feeling is somehow less one of resolution than simply completion.
The King Singers choir takes the stage at the end of the play after the final line is spoken. The song they perform is as beautiful as the first: another spiritual, moving in its heartfelt simplicity.
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