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The beauty of Joseph Zettelmaier’s And the Creek Don’t Rise lies somewhere in its wonderful simplicity. The playwright’s fish-out-of-water premise and intricate trio of relationships touches on a kind of real-world uncertainty, giving warmth as well as benign enmity to a skirmish between neighbors. Under the direction of Joseph Albright, this world-premiere production at Williamston Theatre humorously pits North against South in a play that uses Civil War history as an entry point to civil warfare.

When we first meet Rob Graff (John Lepard), he’s moving the last of the boxes into the Carson, Georgia, house he has purchased with wife Maddie (Kate Peckham). Both transplants from Michigan, Rob and Maddie are agog at the visage of their neighbor, Doc Boggs (Thomas D. Mahard), who arrives in his Confederate uniform to bid them welcome. Doc is a devoted reenactor of the “war of Northern aggression,” and when he invites Rob to participate in the next day’s battle, Maddie sees it as a way for her spouse to make friends and valuable connections in this foreign land. And in excellent concert with the gracious complexity of Southern rules of hospitality, she is both right and wrong. When Rob commits a gaffe of incomprehensible magnitude, Doc remains outwardly cordial and generous to a fault, but the wary Michigander suspects a steely hostility under the old gentleman’s acts of kindness. To the viewer’s great reward, Rob is entirely right. The men’s subsequent escalation is fantastic for injecting high stakes into a stiffly polite and largely harmless feud. Together, Lepard and Mahard expertly traverse their characters’ conflict, which pays off both in their growing understanding despite themselves and in the big laughs they deliver along the way.

Although the narrative sets Rob and Doc at the fore, it’s the third character that gives the play its texture. Maddie is enjoying career advancement that outshines Rob’s prospects, and she seems to fit in with life in Carson with an ease that her husband can barely fathom. Yet far more than a plot foil, Peckham presents a supportive spouse that is at the same time an example of how couples aren’t cut from the same cloth; her actions opposite Lepard genuinely encourage Rob’s transition, but fall appropriately short of actually helping. The relationship between Maddie and Doc is similarly dynamic, and the affection that passes between the two performers is as telling as it is tender. Albright and the cast give the material a practiced subtlety that unearths layers of meaning, but also doesn’t interfere with a well-aimed punchline.

The action unfolds on Daniel C. Walker’s negative-space setting, with the viewer allowed to fill in the details beyond the suggestions of a porch and a miniature promontory. Reid G. Johnson’s lighting gives clarity and dimension to the different spaces, contrasting montage-like abstraction with the reality of a hushed bedside scene. Costumes by Holly Iler veer toward the literal, paying off in fine period reproductions as well as modern kinds of uniforms. The hubbub of battlefield reenactments is filled in by Will Myers’s sound design, which also plays with musical hybrids flanking the play’s two acts.

In all, And the Creek Don’t Rise is victorious in its every endeavor. Zettelmaier packs his relatable script with comic potential, and excellent direction and performances gamely infuse the proceedings with warmth that abounds, even through moods of conflict and real trouble. In its two hours, this straightforward plot takes time to luxuriate in the minutiae of people's interactions and their perceptions of the same, all while raising fascinating questions regarding inclusion and belonging, reminding the viewer that these are not always so similar as they seem.


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