Performing Arts

Grits, a truck stop & words give Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Tennessee Playboy’ loads of Southern charm

Connor Eastman (Chuck) and Casey Jane (Pearlene) are the main characters of the MET’s “Tennessee Playboy.” Marketing materials are the only places you’ll see Monticello the chicken.
Connor Eastman (Chuck) and Casey Jane (Pearlene) are the main characters of the MET’s “Tennessee Playboy.” Marketing materials are the only places you’ll see Monticello the chicken.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre isn’t the first place you’d take a chicken in search of stardom. Nonetheless, MET director Karen Paisley auditioned three birds and their chicken parents for her latest production.

Monticello was the lucky fowl who made the cut.

To be clear, there’s no actual chicken in “Tennessee Playboy,” opening Thursday. It’s a metaphor for the lead character. But that didn’t stop Paisley.

After briefly considering including the bird in the show (and realizing the logistics involved), she was too in love with the idea to cut Monticello’s career short.

So, you can see him flaunting his stuff on the production’s marketing materials.

“Monticello the chicken isn’t actually in the play, but I sure wish he was,” Paisley said. “I just couldn’t resist the chicken.”

The comedy set in 1975 Tennessee has many authentic touches; there’s a truck stop set with details straight out of Paisley’s South Carolina childhood and a full Southern-style meal cooked onstage every night.

It all adds a sense of fun to the story about second chances, falling in love and tall tales.

This will only be the second production of the “redneck romance” by Preston Lane, which premiered in 2013 at the Triad Stage in Greensboro, N.C. It’s an adaptation of J.M. Synge’s 1907 classic, “The Playboy of the Western World,” moving the events from Ireland to a small town in eastern Tennessee.

The plot remains much the same: Chuck, a man on the run from the law, arrives at the truck stop, boasting of how he murdered his father after years of abuse. Rather than turn him in, the locals admire his actions and see him as a hero — but an unexpected visitor throws a wrench in Chuck’s plans.

“Tennessee Playboy” fills the MET’s spot in the season for lighter fare. However, just because the main character is almost nude for the entire performance doesn’t mean it’s any less complicated than the dramas the company is known for, Paisley said.

“We’ve gotten into a habit of assuming that sophistication has to be mean, and I don’t think sophistication is mean and jaded,” she said. “I think it’s possible to be sophisticated and funny — sophisticated and kind and hopeful.”

“It’s heartwarming in a non-cheesy way,” added Elizabeth Bettendorf Bowman, who’s co-directing with Paisley.

Some of the complexity comes from the language the characters use — which seems at odds with the stereotype of simple country folk. It’s a direct nod to the original play, which used traditional Irish language and accent to craft poetry out of dialogue. Connor Eastman, who plays Chuck, compared it to Shakespeare.

“Every descriptive word in the script is onomatopoeic, by which I mean it sounds like it sounds. There’s a part where I’m talking about sneaking around in the dark, and I say ‘sneaking around in the shade of night,’ ” he said, slipping into his character’s Southern accent. “When you say that phrase, you drop down and you express the shade of night with your voice. And it’s just like that the whole way.”

His character’s final speech, an ode to his love interest Pearlene (played by Casey Jane), is done in the style of Romeo’s balcony speech to Juliet.

Language isn’t all the actors had to master; Jane will actually cook a full meal onstage. Luckily, it’s only scrambled eggs and sausage and grits (and she said she’s a good enough cook to manage that), but it’s also only one part of the food-filled play. Expect all kinds of Southern delights: moonpies, old fashioned pop, biscuits and more. Audience members can even taste some of the delicacies in the lobby before the show.

Eastman said he’s begun fasting before rehearsals because he ends up eating a whole meal in the two hours of the play.

While “Tennessee Playboy” is a comedy and Paisley certainly hopes the audience has a good time, as a Southerner herself, she wants them to find the truth in these characters and the era — to fall in love along with Chuck and Pearlene.

“I love that it’s about second chances — love and possibilities and dreams,” she said. “Who says you can’t fall in love in one night? Some people do.

“I think that’s why we get completely enchanted by it — that whole idea of watching something happen. Theater is good that way. It’s supposed to make something possible.”

Also opening this week

“Five Guys Named Moe,” presented by the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City March 30 through April 9 at the Arts Asylum, 1000 E. Ninth St. In the musical comedy, Nomax (left broke and alone after his girlfriend leaves) finds solace in the five men who emerge from his radio as they all sing the hits of Louis Jordan. See BRTKC.org.

“Elephant and Piggie’s ‘We are in a Play!,’  April 4 through May 21 at the Coterie, 2450 Grand Ave. In an adaptation of Mo Willems’ book series, best friends Elephant and Piggie explore what it means to make a play with the help of the audience and lively musical numbers. See TheCoterie.org or call 816-474-6552.

On stage

“Tennessee Playboy” runs March 30 through April 15 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. $15-$49. METKC.org, 816-569-3226.

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