Although the title may conjure up images of the happily-ever-after romantic Disney version of the Cinderella fairytale, Knoxville Theatre Club’s production of Cindy & Ella goes in a much different, much darker direction. In fact, an appropriate sub-title to this engaging work written and directed by JP Schuffman and Sara Gaddis might even be ‘A Dustbowl Gothic Tale,’ for it pulls the audience along on a descent with delicious twists and turns into the depths of human cruelty, greed, and violence.
At the center of this tale are three woman living in an Oklahoma farm community during the dustbowl days of the Great Depression. A young girl, Cindy Wicket, has recently been traumatized into some form of madness by the death of her mother. Her recently widowed aunt, Eudora Gourd, and her daughter, Ella, arrive for the funeral with their own sad, but suspicious story of their own tragedy. However, it is Eudora’s all-consuming greed that bubbles to the surface as the pair move into and appropriate the Wicket house, with Eudora subsequently marrying the never-seen father of Cindy. Also suspiciously, Mr. Wicket then disappears, supposedly to find work in Colorado, leaving Cindy to face abuse—and leaving her cousin Ella, to deal with her mother’s ever-increasing greed and violence.
Maria Kauffman, a participant in productions at the Knoxville Children’s Theatre (Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice) and Clarence Brown Theatre (Betty Parris in The Crucible), was seen in the role of Cindy. Somewhat magically, Kauffman constructed her character around keeping the audience guessing as to where on the scale of naive, bouncy farm girl to raving lunatic she resides.
Appearing as Ella is Raine Palmer who was recently seen as Puck in 70/30 Production’s of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her Ella, trapped and manipulated by her mother, is perhaps the most mysterious of all the characters, as the audience must continually weigh “what does she know and when did she know it” in regards to her mother’s acts of violence and greed.
Pulling off a remarkable arc of character as Momma Eudora Gourd is Bonny Baker Pendleton. The role, a constant ebb and flow of kindness versus meanness, borrows from a multitude of black widow and evil stepmother-type characters found throughout literature and films. Without doubt, the icy, deliberative side of the character’s willingness to justify evil was fertile ground for Pendleton’s ability as a splendid character actress.
Chad Wood took the smooth role of Andrew Price, the rich and handsome stranger from Chicago who appears with a possible offer to purchase the farm. Wood made honesty a true hallmark of his character, although his intentions in wooing Ella at times bordered on the old “traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter” type of scenario.
The marvelous set of wood slats (David Silverthorn, master carpenter) was quite successful at suggesting a dustbowl farmhouse, even with the minimal lighting control available in the venue.
Cindy & Ella, produced by Knoxville Theatre Club, continues at Modern Studio on Friday and Saturday, September 29 and 30, at 8 PM.