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A CurtainUp Review
Hillbilly Women

When I was little, I used to shovel up dirt, make mud balls and eat them by the spoonfuls. Dirt's supposed to hurt you. If it did, I'd have been dead a long time ago.— Della
Hillbilly Women
l-r: Mickey Sumner, Alicia Meer, Evangeline Johns, Annette Hunt, Lauren Fox
(Photo: Steve Friedman)
Ever since poverty has been racialized and urbanized, the poverty of people in some groups has stopped being part of the public conscience or agenda. Yet the rural poor do exist, as Elizabeth Stearns' Hillbilly Women makes abundantly clear.

Based on the eponymous book by Kathy Kahn, Hillbilly Women has the heartrending clarity that often comes with real-life interviews. The six "hillbilly women" tell the story of their struggle to survive brutal men, scarcity of money, lack of education and dangerous occupations with the aid of traditional songs and the ubiquitous video projections directors now seem to think are essential to the theater.

In addition to the six women there is a witness, played by former first lady of New York City Donna Hanover, who is supposed to provide context and commentary. Unfortunately, director Sondra Lee doesn't seem to know what to do with this character, nor does Hanover have the skill to give the witness any credible personality. This lack is more than compensated for by the six ladies who form the heart of this show. They sit on a barren stage and tell their stories of hope and suffering with wonderful dignity, pride and insight.

There's Jewel (Alicia Meer), who has lived in a cotton mill village on and off for twenty-one years and her daughter Della (Mickey Summer) who yearns for something better but thinks emancipation for women is the freedom to have sex before marriage. There's Sharleen (Lauren Fox) who worked all her life, toting whiskey, tending chickens, milking cows, cleaning, cooking and washing.

Siddy (Evangeline Johns), who has lived in the Kentucky coal fields all her life, remembers the miners going under the mountains, never knowing whether they'd come out alive. Ada (Annette Hunt) recalls her father carrying her shoes and stockings two miles to the church house door in an effort to make them last longer. Denise (Mimi Turque) has learned to pray and work at the same time.

All these women are so credible it's sometimes hard to believe the actors were born in places like New York's Upper West Side (Fox) and went to schools like Barnard College (Frame) or began their career as Copacabana chorus girls (Johns). When called upon to sing, they don't always have the necessary vocal abilities, but this only serves to underscore their authenticity.

The musical selections, which include songs by Billy Bragg ("A Miner's Life"), Woody Guthrie ("Union Maid") and Tammy Wynette ("Stand By Your Man"), are so well known and appropriate that the audience hardly needs encouragement to join in. They echo the fight to unionize, both in the cotton mills and the coal mines, and the working man and woman's attempt to draw some pleasure from a hard life.

Hillbilly Women may not be as much fun as a big musical like The Addams Family, but it is a show that touches the heart in ways that are not easily forgotten.

Hillbilly Women
By Elizabeth Stearns, based on the book by Kathy Kahn
Directed by Sondra Lee
Cast: Lauren Fox (Sharleen), Donna Hanover (Witness), Annette Hunt (Ada), Evangeline Johns (Siddy), Alicia Meer (Jewel), Mickey Sumner (Della) and Mimi Turque (Denise)
Set Design Consultant: Peter Harvey
Costume Design: Joseph G. Aulisi
Lighting Design: Justin Sturges
Projection Design: Steve Friedman
Stage Manager: Ricardo Rust
Choreographer: Annette Fletcher
Running Time: 90 minutes
The Bleecker Company. at Arclight Theatre, 152 West 71st Street
From January 6, 2011; opening 7/13/11; closing 1/30/11
Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: $18 (212) 352-3101
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Jan. 7, 2011
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