Northlight Theatre’s “The Porch on Windy Hill: a new play with old music” is exactly that. The old music is an impressive collection of bluegrass standards with the new play a trio of voices weaving a narrative path through Appalachia. The play features Mira (Lisa Helmi Johanson), a Korean American traveling rural North Carolina with her boyfriend Beckett (Morgan Morse), who is combing the backwoods for material to use in his folk-centric dissertation. While born into this Appalachian world, she is now decidedly an outsider who wanders into churches and other folk-music gatherings with a clear exit strategy in case things grow hostile (a concern no doubt accentuated by her ethnicity in a post-COVID world). It is in such a place that she runs into her estranged grandfather, Edgar (David M. Lutken), a local folk music legend and Vietnam War veteran. Shocked, they accompany him back to his country home to sit on a porch, drink sweet tea and explore their past. In doing so they form a pickin’ party with the trio plucking their way through a family history that is both loving and constricted.
This production hums along well on two levels with director Sherry Lutken (who also conceived this work) allowing for both the sentimental as well as the more painful moments to breathe. The cast (each of whom shares a writing credit) is simply exceptional with all three members proving adept not only in nailing the dramatic moments but also in playing folk instruments involving everything from a dulcimer to an erhu (a Chinese two-stringed bowed musical instrument). They also possess earthy and natural singing voices that effectively show off a musical catalogue bred of longing and sadness.
Credit also needs to go to Mara Zinky’s incredibly well-done set design that features an almost life-size wood-frame house with accompanying front porch. The only thing absent was a barking dog pressed against a window frame. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design and Rick Sims’ sound design are just as actualized and the effect is an engaging frame by which folk classics such as “Columbus Stockade Blues” and “My Horses Ain’t Hungry” are given new life. However windy the path, a trip to this production is highly recommended.
Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, (847)673-6300, northlight.org. $30-$89. Through May 14.