Allison Moore's Hazard County aims to examine Southern stereotypes, racial politics, and the thin line between news, reality TV, and exploitation. That's a lot for one play to cover in 100 minutes, and although director Allison Heishman's production for Azuka Theatre is sincere and engrossing, it doesn't accomplish all its goals.
Hazard County's plot (which takes a while to get going) focuses on Ruth, a widow in her late twenties who is having a hard time eking out a living while raising eight-year-old twins. Blake, who claims to be a political activist, befriends her (and eventually beds her), all the while learning more about the murder of her husband eight years earlier. But eventually Blake learns that the murder had disturbing racial implications. And Blake reveals that he's not the activist he claimed he was earlierhe's a reality TV producer who is so disturbed with the genre's unscrupulous tactics that he's decided to redeem himself by working for Fox News. (Whether that's a step up or a step down is never discussed.)
Meanwhile, it seems everyone in Kentucky views Blake suspiciously because he's an outsider who learned about Southern culture from watching "The Dukes of Hazzard." The playwright intersperses the Ruth/Blake scenes with monologues discussing that TV series by various observers, including an obsessed fangirl who runs a "Dukes" website, a college professor who wrote a dissertation on the show's ethics, and a teenage boy who bought a replica of the show's racing car, the General Lee, to impress girls.
Those monologues are often quite funny, and they make thoughtful points, especially about how the show embraced the symbolism of the Confederate flag while distancing itself from the flag's racist legacy. But the monologues get in the way of the story and slow it down. And that story is frustrating. Plot revelations are drawn out so slowly that the play feels as manipulative as, well, reality TV or cable news. The play presents Blake as a hero, but he double-crosses Ruth and her family to the very end, and Moore never seems to question his approach; in the end Ruth even gets transformed into a villain for opposing him. A deeper examination of Blake's ethics seems beyond Moore, which makes one wonder why someone with Blake's background was added to a mix that was already brimming with complex issues.
Heishman's direction is effective in individual scenes, but the play feels disjointed; it takes a while to figure out that the characters seen in the monologues are not part of the main plot. Music and lighting changes might have helped make that clearer. And Moore should have put the professor's monologue first, rather than the teenager's, to make the delineation between the show's two worlds more explicit.
The cast is made up of recent college graduates (part of Azuka's New Professionals program, designed to give graduates a chance to have their work seen by the greater Philadelphia theatre community). Bailey Shaw is the standout; her voice, mannerisms, and manic energy make her completely convincing as Ruth's eight-year-old daughter, and she's equally good in monologues as a hysterical fangirl and a jaded senior citizen. Brandi Burgess shows off an easygoing charm as Ruth, and Will Thompson gives Blake a focused intensity. (Thompson joined the cast just a few days before the opening due to another actor's injury, and the power he was able to bring to his performance with minimal preparation was impressive.) Brian Ratcliffe shows off his range in multiple roles, while Julia King plays Ruth's white trash cousin with a Southern accent that is unfortunately, pardon the pun, haphazard.
Allison Moore's play takes on some big issues, but doesn't delve into them deeply enough to be satisfying. As for "The Dukes of Hazzard," well, I always thought it was dumb. Hazard County, on the other hand, is smartjust not smart enough.
Hazard County runs through July 1, 2012, and is presented by Azuka Theatre at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets cost $15-$27 and are available online at www.azukatheatre.org or by phone at (215) 563-1100.