It's Dec. 31, 1952 - a misrable night in Oakhill, West Virginia. The cold rain is pouring down. You can see it through the big office window of the 24-Hour Pure Oil and Gas Station. John W. Bardett Jr., the wordless, invisible proprietor, watches it from his swivel chair. If he wonders why he ever bothered to stay open on this God-forsaken night, he's about to find out.
There's a commotion outside, the station door bursts open, and a lone man in a cowboy suit, a guitar case in his rigid grip, reels into the dingy garage. He's Hank Williams, famous country music star. In his own mind - "at twenty-nine going on a hundred" - he's pretty sure he's living the last hours of his life, a point he mentions more than once in the 90-minute autobiographical saga he subsequently unfolds to the imaginary Bardett.
The Virginia Stage Company's current show, the world premiere of Lanie Robertson's Nobody Lonesome For Me, is a first rate piece of work. On every level it will absorb you - unless you are looking to feel better about yourself and our society. In that case, the play will not help you except by contrast. No self-respecting human being could be in sorrier shape than Hank Williams on this metaphorical New Year's Eve. And no self-respecting actor could convey that brave hopelessness with more sensitivity than Troy Allan Burgess. In an impressive one-man performance as the derelict star, Burgess coaxes us to love him, even in his self-destruction.
If that was Robertson's intension in writing this piece - to confront us with the tragedy of a most likable, talent-laden, public man crushed by his inability to rise above the environment which produced him - he is successful. This sad country love-song-of-a-play, with its belly-aching turmoil of alcohol, fornication, and Jesus, is in many ways a myth of rural white America. the spawning ground for quite a wide territory of experience in our national psyche. For me, its raw power and mythic resonance, carried in the tight, lyrical poetry of its language, surpasses that of Robertson's earlier hit, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill.
One-person shows are tremendously demanding. A good script is a must, but unless the performer can add stamina, versatility and the ability to shape and control the flow of the material from beat to beat, all is lost. The happy partnership between this author and this actor must make director Charlie Hensley, their intermediary, sleep very well these nights after a job well done.