ENOSBURG FALLS — Tuesday night, across from the Bates feed store and the old railroad tracks on Depot Street, a few dozen Franklin County residents were pretending to be 20th century backcountry yokels. They were directed by Kathleen Hoffman, who, when not on summer break, teaches eighth graders at Missisquoi Valley Union School.
“The pressure is definitely on,” Hoffman said.
This heterogeneous mix of local yokels-in-training — precocious middle-school students and eager teens, their excited teachers and non-excitable retirees — had come together to stage a play, Li’l Abner. They had just over a week to get it right.
They’ll perform their dirt-road hijinks, complete with song and dance, for a paying audience at the Enosburg Opera House, beginning July 28.
Li’l Abner is loosely based on the comic strip most famous for developing the Southern stereotype, our concept of the uneducated, ambitionless and socially depraved bumpkin — not to be confused with the likes of those “Bazooka Joe” gum wrapper comics, from which Abner writer-illustrator Al Capp’s sharp social commentary and progressive political bent were absent.
It had artistic and cultural merit, sure, but Li’l Abner was popular, too, enough so for Capp to make a living out of it for 43 years. In turn, Hollywood made radio shows, numerous failed TV series and a few financially successful movies out of it.
Then there was the stage adaptation. “It’s set during the Cold War, in the 1950s,” Hoffman explains. “It’s about this town that’s going to be obliterated by a nuclear bomb that they’re testing, because they were testing them out near Vegas, but they can’t hit Vegas, God forbid, because where would those crooks — I mean, where would those politicians spend a lot of money?”
With Vegas out of the question, Senator Phogbound, whom Hoffman calls an “incompetent boob,” sets her atomic sights on a nearby hick town. Its redneck residents band together to save themselves from nuclear annihilation.
For those allergic to nuclear tension, “there’s a love twist, too,” Hoffman promises, revolving around a Sadie Hawkins Dance, the concept of which was born in the original Li’l Abner comic strip. Sadie Hawkins was one of its characters, an irreparably homely — or, as Hoffman puts it, “unfortunate-looking” — gal desperately seeking suitors. So her father created Sadie Hawkins Day, a foot race in which the town’s unwed women pursue local bachelors, matrimony being the consequence of a successful pursuit.
“Daisy Mae has always run after Li’l Abner,” Hoffman said. “He takes this tonic every day, that his mother makes, and so it’s made him what we now would call ‘a-romantic.’ Just doesn’t care. He likes Daisy Mae, but only as a pal. All he cares about is fishing.”
Therein lies the love story, brought to life through Robert Willey, as Abner, and Heather Wilson, as Daisy Mae. They’re polar opposites, Willey and Wilson as much as Abner and Daisy Mae.
On stage, rehearsing a number slower and more operatic than one might expect from a comic play about hillbillies, Wilson wears flowing, elegantly casual clothing, while Willey wears an Ace Hardware polo beneath half-buttoned jean overalls.
Off stage, Wilson’s lips are sealed tighter than — one hopes — the nuclear stronghold from which Senator Phogbound has dredged her bomb. Wilson reveals she’s “been in a lot of plays,” but that’s it. She insists all questions about the play, especially those about its political bent, be directed toward the director. Her off-stage persona is as consummately professional as her acting is expert.
Willey, on the other hand, exudes a warmth recalling southern hospitality.
“I’ve been in theater since I was in elementary school,” he says, smiling into the distance as if watching his memories play on some mental stage. “I got ‘the Bug,’ as I call it, and I never looked back. I’ve done acting, and I’ve done lots of backstage work. I’ve done backstage work and some production for the Miss Vermont organization, I’ve assistant-directed the talent search that used to go on on this stage, so… I’ve been around the stage for a long time.”
He’s quick to clarify that he’s not just attracted to acting. “It’s everything about it,” he says. “It’s the stage that really gets me.”
The cast files on to the stage for an ensemble number.
“Put on your sad faces!” she calls.
Gradually, they do so, like flowers wilting in time-lapse photography. The two-dozen actors perform another song too classical and pretty for any known population of North American bumpkins.
“That was beautiful!” cries a teenage boy dressed in vintage women’s clothing.
It’s 7:30 p.m, and the sun is putting a final performance of its own, casting beams through the opera house’s old stained glass windows, highlighting its old wood flooring. Everything is old here, older than the play’s setting, perhaps, save for Hoffman’s computer and half the cast.
The diverse actors, who look like they were plucked at random from the Franklin County population, rehearse from 6 to 10 p.m. every weeknight. They’ve been at it for three months.
Asked how these people sacrifice nights out and family dinners and follow full workdays with full nights of comparable effort for months on end, Hoffman shrugs.
“If you enjoy community theater, you make time for it,” she says.
Those who enjoy political theater might get a special kick out of this Enosburg exclusive incarnation of Li’l Abner, which Hoffman says she and the cast have updated.
“You’ll see a little Donald Trump, you’ll see a little Hillary Clinton,” she says. “You’ll hear about Bernie.”
Hoffman has sent invitations to all the local and statewide political candidates, inviting them to the premiere performance of the show. “We’re hoping to have a number of our candidates here to see the show, and then do punch and cookies after,” she says.
The moment Hoffman finishes her sentence, onstage, the play’s Trump counterpart, General Bullmoose, warns an embarrassed teenager, “Don’t you ‘Dear General Bullmoose’ me, you bumbling incompetent hillbilly cretin!”
Not long after, between attempts at a full-cast rehearsal of the show’s musical finale, the band’s conductor, Swanton music instructor Loren Sylvester, faces the stage.
“Question,” he announces. “How much, percentage-wise, does the band sound different than the CD?”
After a moment, the cast spits out various numbers, ranging from seven to four-point-five.
“They have a week left to learn and lock into what they’re doing,” Hoffman says. She doesn’t seem worried.
On stage, cast members sing, in unison, “We don’t like stone or ce-ment/But we is in agreement/When we gets down to talkin’ politics/The country’s doing just fine.
So are the actors, who will perform Li’l Abner at the Enosburg Opera House at 7 p.m. from July 28 to 30, and at 2 p.m. on July 31. Tickets are $12 for students and seniors, $14 online and $15 at the door.