The Porch on Windy Hill is a musical treat to the ear and a soulful treat to the heart. Subtitled “a new play with old music,” the Northlight Theatre production is magical, and the talent is awesome.
The first half is a “pickin’ party” of bluegrass, a “hootenanny” for us Yankees. The characters, who can’t talk to each other without hurting each other, talk through their music and song.
The second half is a dramatic reconciliation across generations and cultures, made possible because of the music that connected them in the first half.
A young classical violinist, who also plays the fiddle, and her boyfriend, collecting stories for his Ph.D. in ethno musicality, travel to the mountains of North Carolina from their place in Brooklyn to find authentic bluegrass histories.
He doesn’t know that his biracial Korean girlfriend was a child raised in North Carolina with her grandfather, a bluegrass performer.
Once the audience gets past the unlikely coincidence that they all meet in the countryside of North Carolina – and that is easy to do, once the music starts – the story and the music are totally infatuating.
The first half is a story of unexplained estrangement. Why hasn’t she talked to her grandfather in years? Why doesn’t her boyfriend know about her background? Hints of prejudice, because her father is Korean and her grandfather is a Vietnam war vet, circle around the unspoken words but only surface through the shared playing of music.
And boy, do they play. So many instruments: the banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, violin (fiddle) and harmonica. Even add the erhu for some Asian culture. So much bluegrass history in the songs: Down In the Valley, Sail Away Ladies and Blackberry Blossom. If people don’t love bluegrass before the performance, guaranteed they will after.
A lot of foot stomping on stage and toe and finger tapping in the audience.
The second half is more drama than music. It explores the harshness of being a biracial Korean in a small North Carolina town and the cost to her and her family because of it.
The granddaughter confronts her grandfather over hurtful childhood memories and he is forced to recognize the separation his behavior created.
This show is unique because of how it was created. The three performers, talented actors and musicians, along with one of their wives, wrote the script and were involved in all aspects of the production. Their personal connection is evident in everything that happens on stage.
David M. Lutken (as the grandfather) has such an easy, likeable style until he is forced to take a closer look at who he is and what he’s done. His singing, his southern drawl and his relaxed delivery are a perfect match for bluegrass.
Lutken starts by playing the guitar but soon he picks up every instrument on stage. The harmonica is the big surprise.
Morgan Morse (as boyfriend Beck) is charming in his willingness to support his girlfriend and to discover the family secrets. And Morse plays a heck of a mandolin. The grandfather tells Beck: “You play a pretty good mandolin for a hippy.”
Beck provides some comic relief as the unaware intellectual sincerely trying to communicate with the down-home grandfather. “Do you think your music has evolved?” Beck asks. “Do what now?” the grandfather says. “We just play it.”
Lisa Helmi Johanson (as Mira the girlfriend and granddaughter) is a talented violinist and fiddle player. Mira grew up playing the fiddle but rejected her North Carolina heritage and its discrimination against her Korean identity to study classical violin. Johanson is a skillful performer of both. She also is the actor with the most emotional demands.
The director of The Porch on Windy Hill, Sherry Lutken, deserves special recognition for her part in putting this concept together and working with her three actor/performer collaborators.
And kudos to the creative staff at Northlight for recognizing how special this play/musical was going to be. The production here is just the second after its world premiere in Connecticut. I suspect it is in for many more shows across the United States.
The Northlight Theatre production of The Porch on Windy Hill is playing through May 14 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., in Skokie. Tickets are $35-$79. The box office is at 847-673-6300 and the website is northlight.org.
I loved this play. Everything the reviewer said is right on. Great music and great story. Very relevant. My husband and I knew nothing about the play. I saw the dulcimer and because we play one, I wanted to see the play no matter what it was about. It was a wonderful surprise and we would see it again. We came for the dulcimer and stayed for the play and I am so glad we did!
Your review makes me want to see/hear this a second time!