Frankie

a new play
by William Gregg and Perry Deane Young
was performed by the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre at Mars Hill (N.C.) College
on Aug. 1-5 and 9-12, 2001.
This review is based on the Aug. 4 performance.

Review and Photos* by Lana Whited
Professor of English and Journalism
Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va.

 

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Frankie Silver (Amanda Rosslyn Ladd) stands trial
under the watchful eye of Sheriff Boone (Randy Noojin).

On the morning of the day I saw Frankie, I spent a couple of hours at Kona. I wandered around the cemetery, took photographs of Charlie Silver's gravestones, and browsed yellowed newspaper articles in the memorial exhibit assembled by Wayne Silver (who died June 6). I spent a lot of time gazing across the mountains toward the Toe River. I thought about how much of the story of Frankie Silver's life, despite three recent books and a documentary, is still a mystery.

That mystery is the biggest obstacle to anyone attempting to adapt Frankie Silver's story for literary purposes. The second biggest is that most members of a Western North Carolina audience know how the story ends. William Gregg and Perry Deane Young have met these challenges admirably in their new play Frankie, which recently concluded a successful run at the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre at Mars Hill College. Gregg is SART's artistic director, and Young, a Western North Carolina native, is a Chapel Hill-based journalist and author of The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged? (Down Home Press, 1998). Gregg also directed this production.

The SART production of Frankie was beautifully staged, with a lovely backdrop conjuring the distant Blue Ridge Mountains and a set composed almost entirely of unfinished planks. Aside from the fancier technology of lighting and sound, the set itself could have been created by a director when Frankie and Charlie Silver were alive. It was, in a word, authentic. A particularly effective feature was the sloping of the stage floor slightly downward toward the audience, creating the illusion of falling, a disturbing metaphor appropriate for a play that culminates in a hanging.

Often, we resist the idea of seeing characters we have encountered in literature and legend rendered by flesh-and-blood actors, as if a concrete representation of a figure limits our ability to imagine her. This was certainly the case with my conception of Frankie Silver, but despite my resistance, I found Amanda Rosslyn Ladd very effective in the lead role. Ladd, a Mars Hill College senior, is physically right for the part – small and fair. She gave a moving performance as a spunky young woman constrained by both her society and her circumstances. During the scene depicting Frankie's confession, quite a few audience members wept.

Other standouts among the uniformly good cast were Michael Mattison** as defense attorney Thomas Wilson, Matt Brenneman as clerk of court Burgess Gaither, and Liz Aiello** as Mrs. Perkins, a Morganton gentlewoman and activist on Frankie's behalf.

Wilson faces a thankless task: defending a young woman accused of killing her abusive husband, before an all-male jury, in an era when the defendant could not testify herself (an accused person was considered an incompetent witness and, under English common law, prohibited from testifying because the opportunity to do so might entice the defendant to commit the sin of lying). So Wilson was hamstrung, and Michael Mattison effectively conveyed his impotence. (Wilson was the great, great great-uncle of the late Sen. Sam J. Ervin, Jr. of Morganton; Ervin was intrigued by the Frankie Silver case and wrote several articles about it but, according to Perry Dean Young's book, did not know that the attorney whose handling of the case he criticized was his own ancestor.)

Clerk of Court Burgess Gaither is one of the most interesting figures in the drama of Frankie Silver's trial and imprisonment. A relative newcomer when Frankie was arrested, Gaither, an Iredell County native, was a Morganton outsider, a fact which gave him a level eye. But his marriage to Elizabeth Erwin gained him access to the Morganton elite, and his role as clerk allowed him a bird's eye view of Frankie's trial, imprisonment, and execution. It is particularly intriguing, in light of his role at court, that Burgess Gaither's name was first on the first petition for clemency, just ahead of Thomas Wilson's. Probably because of Gaither's unique outsider-insider position, Sharyn McCrumb chose him as the narrator of Frankie's story in her novel The Ballad of Frankie Silver (Dutton, 1998). For the SART production, Matt Brenneman did a good job of creating a character pulled between his duty to the court and his sympathy for Frankie and loyalty to his wife, another of Frankie's champions.

The character of Mrs. Perkins helps playwrights Gregg and Young solve two other problems, one dramatic and the other thematic. The dramatic problem is creating big roles for women in historical material enacted in a male-dominated arena, in this case, the court. The least historical of the major characters, Mrs. Perkins was created "almost out of whole cloth," according to Perry Deane Young. However, Young is aware of a Mrs. Perkins who once got up a petition to save two horse thieves from hanging in Asheville, based on her colorful conviction that "no son of a woman should ever be killed for the foal of an ass." Young and Gregg's Mrs. Perkins is a sort of tribute to the other Mrs. Perkins, and her voice, is, as Young maintains, "vital to the play." It is the voice of an educated woman of principle, a woman who is Frankie's opposite in nearly every aspect but gender. Actress Liz Aiello puts the bone in Mrs. Perkins' corset, and thematically, hers is the voice of conscience.

It is to Mrs. Perkins that Frankie makes her confession in the play's climax. This scene, played by Ladd and Aiello on alternate sides of an authentic-looking jail cell, was powerful drama based on the best theory from scant evidence of why Frankie Silver might have killed her husband. The confession isn't made of "whole cloth," but woven from scraps, such as the mention in the first petition to Gov. Montford Stokes of "the brutal conduct of the husband toward the wife -- as appeared in evidence." In their petition to Gov. David Swain the following summer, the ladies of Morganton also noted that Charlie treated Frankie "with personal violence." Thus, Charlie's abuse of Frankie is beyond speculation, and its inclusion in Frankie is appropriate, even essential.

However, I was one of probably few audience members who had a mixed reaction to hearing Frankie confess. As a lover of drama, I found the scene moving. It was well performed, well lit, and well staged. But as a student of the Frankie Silver materials, I had a strong negative reaction to the confession that I'm not sure I can adequately explain. Because Frankie did not testify at her own trial and because the confession she is said to have written has never been found, there is a silence as mysterious as distant mountains at the heart of Frankie's story. My instinct is that Frankie's silence should be preserved, and that implications about her motives should come from other characters. Her very silence lends a subtlety or ambiguity that is part of the legend, and it is important for those who are new to Frankie's story to understand the integral fact of her having been denied a voice. What better way to underscore that than for the playwrights to take her voice away?

I readily admit that my reaction may be an example of the "I-would-have-done-it-this-way" attitude which I sometimes criticize in reviewers. I certainly believe that constructing a "best theory" version of an event where facts are thin is a valid dramatic approach. But I am left with an uneasy feeling about hearing Frankie confess, and I am plagued by the question of whether my instinct to deny Frankie her voice authenticates or further victimizes her.

In the conclusion, Gregg and Young dramatize the hanging behind a factually accurate barrier erected by the Morganton sheriff to discourage gawkers' insensitivity. Thus, Frankie drops in shadow, but the noise of the trap door giving way is all the playwrights need to convey the execution's horror. The scene is appropriately tense, and events build to the hanging as surely as a ball might roll down the slanted stage. Only briefly does the tension seem forced, when Isaiah Stewart turns from the gallows upstage center to the audience to declare "YOU killed her." I'm not sure exactly who or what is being indicted by that statement, and for me, it broke the illusion of the stage. The same character also dilutes the execution scene's climactic line, "Die with it in you, Frankie!" by preceding it with a heavy-handed explanation along the lines of "Don't tell them what really happened." It is as though the playwrights fear that the audience will miss the implication of a cover-up in the Stewart family.

As these examples attest, and as is the case with any new play, some minor whittling would improve the play itself before Frankie appears on stage elsewhere. It seems inevitable that it will have more appearances, as I understand from Perry Deane Young that several other theatres in the region have requested copies of the script to consider producing it. I hope that they will do so. Frankie is an important play which raises enduring questions about family and domestic relationships, social class, and violence, including the death penalty. It deserves a wide audience, and I hope that Frankie's life on stage will exceed her all-too-brief real life.

 


Jake Collis (Andy Reed, right) testifies against Frankie Silver
in the court of Judge John Robert Donnell (Tom Lawson, left) as Clerk of Court Burgess Gaither (Matt Brenneman, center) keeps the record..


Burgess Gaither, Clerk of Court
(Matt Brenneman), listens during testimony.


Frankie Silver (Amanda Rosslyn Ladd) describes Charlie's murder to Mrs. Perkins (Liz Aiello**).


Frankie Silver (Amanda Rosslyn Ladd) speaks to a crowd gathered
at the foot of the gallows as Sheriff Boone
(Randy Noojin) prepares to hang her.


Playwright Perry Deane Young signs copies of his book
The Untold Story of Frankie Silver: Was She Unjustly Hanged?
at intermission.

*photographs published with the permission of Perry Deane Young

**denotes membership in Actor's Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States

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