Until last weekend, I had only vaguely heard of the Mitford novels by Jan Karon, and nothing I'd heard induced me to investigate further. So it seemed like something of a godsend when I learned that Robert Inman's stage adaptation, Welcome to Mitford, would be opening at Fort Mill Community Playhouse, just a short drive from my home. It had been almost exactly five years since I'd seen The Drama Club, my last sampling of Inman's stage writing, and nearly eight years since my last foray to 615 Banks Street.
Neither Inman's script nor the FMCP production was an ideal choice for savoring the playwright's or the theater company's best work. Welcome to Mitford doesn't sport the quickest 0-60 acceleration, and when it does reach cruising gear, the story and its hero - Father Tim Kavanaugh - are incurably amiable and Christian. Crises for the longtime minister include encountering a dog, courting the new next-door neighbor, contemplating retirement, professional jealousy, and accepting responsibility for a traffic accident. Big stuff in an idyllic Mayberry-like NC town maybe, but not the stuff to set my heart pounding.
FMCP's directors, Susan Capotosto and Tom Moody, no doubt mean well putting the script on its feet, but they and their design team, particularly set designers Rick and Becky Diak, do more to harm the sluggish momentum of Welcome to Mitford. Approximate playing time is listed at 1:45 on Inman's website, but the Fort Mill production, with a 7:30 p.m. curtain time, didn't desist until 10:11, clocking in at 2:24, plus intermission. Those extra 39 minutes could only be partially blamed on slow cue pick-up by a large, uneven cast.
The real culprits were the incessant and unnecessary scene changes. Three or four backdrops were pre-set, so scenes at Father Tim's office, at the town coffee shop, and at Miss Sadie's back porch should have started expeditiously. But there were so many other locales for us to adjourn to, and instead of accessing them with the viewless wings of our imaginations - plus a simple light cue - we had to endure set changes carried out with the grace of a moving company. So the journey back to the original backdrops was often just as arduous.
Fully aware of how lightweight much of the Karon material is, Inman peppered his script with many short scenes, so long scene changes really hurt the overall rhythm. Under those adverse conditions, Rick Knowles performed very well as Father Tim on opening night, with only occasional nicks in his pastoral polish. Better still was Cathy Shaefer as successful children's book author Cynthia Coopersmith, Father Tim's love interest. Schaefer dials in perfectly to how a good man should be prodded, so the couple's scenes are conspicuously well-textured.
Christianity thins out believably from there as we get to know Tim's office employees at Holy Trinity and Mitford's most colorful characters on his rounds. Roy and Wendy Weinberger are the blissfully incompatible owners of the greasy spoon, noticeably less eccentric than the oddballs portrayed by Kristi Barnes and Brett Reid. Among the relatively upstanding Mitfordians, I most fancied Donna Knowles as town benefactress Miss Sadie, Jim Carson as the newspaper reporter with pent-up marital issues, and John Xenakis as Father Tim's often-frustrated family doctor.