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Asheville Citizen-Times review

Review: 'A Rash of Stories' is consummate storytelling
Jim Cavener 11:04 a.m. EDT July 27, 2016
With the writings of a widely acclaimed novelist, poet and short story author, an able interpreter and transmitter of those words, an appropriate musician to accompany and bridge the presentations and a sold-out house for a benefit performance to aid a good cause, the chances are that those lucky enough to get tickets for opening night would have a rewarding time.

And so it was with the presentation of "A Rash of Stories," four short stories by Ron Rash, adapted and presented by Barbara Bates Smith, accompanied by Jeff Sebens on a lap dulcimer with some familiar old-timey tunes.As part of NC Stage's Catalyst Series of small productions at its downtown home stage, this new work by regional actor and interpreter Smith takes on a title that acknowledges the Western Carolina University professor and writer with a clever play-on-words of his name, suggesting a stretch of the title into the Middle English word rasher — a portion or small serving.

Indeed, this production is four short tales, condensed even shorter than author Rash had written them, and just a small portion of his ample number of published writings.Smith has chosen a range of Rash's short stories, starting with "Lincolnites" and "Burning Bright," then winding up with "Casualties & Survivors," and "The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth." Each a charming tale.

Rash holds the John Parris Chair of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University, named for the late, long-time journalist at The Asheville Citizen-Times and graduate of WCU. Rash is a New York Times best-selling author, winner of the Sherwood Anderson prize, the O.Henry prize and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize, as well as the author of 14 volumes of short stories, novels and poetry, His acclaimed short stories were how it all began, and the final piece in this assemblage, 'The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth" is from his first published collection of short stories, in 1994.

Familiar to regional stages, Smith has appeared at NC Stage Co. with "Ivy Rowe" from Lee Smith's "Fair and Tender Ladies"  and in "Go Granny D," which presents the story of a 90-year-old who walked across North American to promote election reform, among other shows. She is also involved with Haywood Street Congregation, the homeless and poverty outreach ministry to which proceeds from this production go.

Smith is surely a consummate storyteller. Throughout the four 12-15 minute monologues, it was hard to tell if she was simply retelling a tale from the past in her own words, in the rich tradition of the Appalachian area, or if this was a recital of the renowned author's words, committed to memory. In fact, all the words are from Rash's pen, condensed to fit into a compact format yet still ranging from tender and touching to ridiculously funny and guffaw-producing, at the finale.

Smith wears a single costume for this scarcely hour-long presentation and moves from a stool in the middle of the stage to a wooden-frame contraption that resembles a clothes drying rack and gracefully serves as a place for Smith to park during some of the tales. Sebens strums his lap dulcimer and provides transition music in much the style of a Ken Burns PBS historical documentary.

Those who expect theater to be full of visual bells-and-whistles, sturm-und-drang, glitz and dazzle might be somewhat disappointed with the lack of fancy lighting, changing scenery and flashy costumes.There is nothing flashy about this simple, straight-forward and compelling storytelling endeavor — no lighting, set or costume changes. But for an attentive observer and listener it's a rewarding hour, and afterwards Smith may schmooze with audience members in the lobby, as she did opening night.

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