'Heathen Valley' play explores relationship with God

It's just a good kind of play for winter, says Mark H. Creter, director of Tennessee Technological University's Backdoor Playhouse, of the group's latest performance in which the plot centers around a bishop who wants to save the souls of a rural Appalachian valley community where incest and murder are accepted and "God has been forgotten."

"I think this play raises some really neat questions Ð can you have faith outside a church or without the regulations of any one church?" he asks rhetorically. "And at the end, the answer has to come from the individual viewer Ð the play does not answer the question for you."

"Heathen Valley" opens in the TTU Backdoor Playhouse Feb. 17, 18, 19 and again on Feb. 25 and 26, all shows at 8 p.m. Additional shows will be performed on Feb. 21 and 24 at 10 p.m., and a 2 p.m. matinee will be performed on Sunday, Feb. 20.

The play, by Romulus Linney, is set in the 1860s and centers on the desire of the Episcopal Bishop of North Carolina to bring the word of God to a valley so remote and untamed that brothers marry sisters and the people live lives of brutal violence and grinding poverty.

"This remote valley, Heathen Valley, is a venue in which everyday conduct is of the most primitive nature, with superstition as the only spiritual master," Creter says.

Accompanied by an uneducated murderer named Starns, who once lived in the area and knows its ways, and a young orphan boy, Billy, the sometimes overbearing bishop sets about bringing "order and decency" to the valley. Returning to civilization to raise funds, the bishop leaves Starns behind as his deacon and before long Starns, aided by Billy, has indeed worked wonders Ð transforming a wildwoman and her deranged lover into a respectable married couple, leading the grizzled mountaineers in hymns, and building a church which, to allay local superstition, has no corners.

When the bishop returns, he is amazed, but also disturbed that perhaps earthly pleasures are replacing the poverty which is more befitting for beholding the glory of God. He also announces that he has decided to renounce his calling and embrace the Roman church Ð which leaves Starns bereft of his illusive authority and, ironically, powerless to halt the slide of his now questioning flock back to the easy and evil ways of old.

"The ultimate issues become Ð is exercising rigid ritual or serving humanity the best way to show one's love of God? What is the ultimate purpose of man Ð living the 'good' life on Earth or using life to search for and rejoin God?" Creter says.

In addition to a good plot, Creter says "Heathen Valley" also offers the Tech Players the opportunity for some strong acting performances.

"This is really a powerful play. I like the questions it raises without preaching. And it is a simple play. It tells the story basically with a bare stage so you have the basic elements of a good play Ð a stage, actors and the audience. This play is just an excellent example of the examination of how mankind should search for God," he adds.

In the cast of "Heathen Valley" are Tech Players Matthew Bassett as Billy, Charles Long as the Bishop, Rob Wheeler as Starns, Sonja Sadler as Cora, Deanna Lindaman as Juba, and local actor Robby Wright as Harlan.

Tickets are $6 for general admission and $3 for students and senior citizens. For further information or to make reservations, call the Backdoor Playhouse box office at 372-6595.