Original homespun show playing at Civic Theatre

Alpena Civic Theatre took a chance producing an unknown play by a novice local playwright for its standard fall offering, but the guy’s got talent.

Director Scott Edgar didn’t just pick Allan James Grund’s “The Big House at Holy Hollow” to showcase on the ACT stage. He also cast the unseasoned Grund in the lead role of aging, struggling, stubborn Roy Hickok.

And the show doesn’t just feature Grund’s script – it also includes a plot turning song Grund wrote, and then provides him with the opportunity to strum his guitar and sing said song. For a brief moment in the show, Grund also gets to demonstrate he’s got some harmonica playing prowess as well.

The homespun show itself can be likened to cozying up in a fuzzy, warm blanket on a cold winter’s night. Doing so provides a simple pleasure, and so does “The Big House at Holy Hollow.”

The expected conflict – sprinkled liberally with comedic moments – has to do with an award-winning peach pie and a 40-year-old perceived wrong between two former best friends. As the story unfolds, Roy and his wife of four decades, Ethel (played wonderfully by Sharon Shiemke), are barely scraping by ever since a tornado destroyed their peach orchard.

Their money woes might also have something to do with the fact Roy can’t stand taking orders from others and therefore avoids holding down any kind of real job. Instead, besides the now devastated orchard, Roy brings in cash by selling wood and operating a still down in the hollow.

He blames his faults and his sometimes churly disposition on the lingering effects of his service in “the war,” although that’s now decades in the past. There is, however, a chance for a turnaround. Roy’s been offered a legitimate job as the head of maintenance at the local church he disrespectfully calls The Big House. The church just happens to be led by his ex-friend, the Rev. Jimmie Hawks. Bruce Michaud, who knows a thing or two about being a minister, kind-heartedly portrays Jimmie.

Ethel longs for Roy to take the job, but of course Roy can’t bring himself to say yes because he doesn’t do church and he doesn’t do regular kinds of jobs.

Ethel and Roy’s loyal group of life-long friends also want him to reconcile with Jimmie, but that’s going to take some doing. Mia Hauff as Winnie, Rosina Phillips as Betty Sue, James Phillips as Major Keyes and Rick Mesler as Will make up the exceedingly well-cast group. Each adds their own individualized humor and humanity to their roles.

Another pivotal point occurs when Roy finally gets a song offer (it could be his big break!) from a big name gospel music performer. The way he and Ethel handle the phone calls regarding the offer plays a bit like a comedy skit inserted into the show for laughs though it is funny.

There is a strong faith-based message and way of life woven throughout the whole show. It’s central to everything, so if you are someone who eschews religion, you should know that ahead of time. Expect some completely outdated values as well such as it’s purely women’s work to do the cooking and the cleaning.

Besides pressure over the job, Ethel also pressures Roy to start coming to church and so do his preacher friend, Jimmie. Regardless, Roy digs his heals. In a poignant second act scene, he offers up a soul searching prayer to God at his favorite fly-fishing spot along the river.

How could God, he wonders, ever turn a loving ear to him – a poker playing, moonshine making man prone to cussing? As it turns out, even though Roy has avoided stepping inside a church building all these years, he’s found his own church in the beauty of nature and its dependable cycles of life that point his heart to God like nothing else can.

Edgar did well to give “The Big House at Holy Hollow” a chance, and the opening night audience showed their appreciation afterwards with a standing ovation. Most of all, kudos to Grund for all his hard work and talent. It’s hard to imagine anyone else other than him playing the role of Roy.