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A Laying on of Stagehands

Living Word Stage Company's latest show almost counts as going to church.

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The world premiere of Living Word Stage Company's "The Rocks Will Cry Out" plays out a lot like some church services: packed with interesting characters and themes of transformation but occasionally repetitive.

The play opens with preacher Johnny Rock, played by Sam Willoughby, getting stuck in his dreaded hometown of Zuni, Va. Circumstances keep him there for several days, and he is forced to reconcile with his questionable past. To his dismay, the townsfolk remember every bit of mischief Johnny ever took part in (and some he did not), even after 20 years. The audience is repeatedly reminded of Johnny's bad deeds, a bit of narrative preaching that feels overdone.

The story weighs the townspeople's perception of Johnny against the reality that he's become a man of exceptional character. The small-town Job endures trials throughout the play, facing the advances of a former girlfriend, the determined pursuit by a local policeman with a chip on his shoulder, and a trip to the slammer. But writer/director Derome Scott Smith wants to assure us that it is possible to revisit and be forgiven for your past (with the help of Jesus and some inspired preaching).

The production I saw realized its own trials with some technical difficulties, prop mishaps, missed cues and dropped lines. But this is the way of live theater, and the cast overcame.

Tony Q. Cobb, who just four days before opening night stepped into the role of Alto Jackson, is wonderful as Johnny's former prankster partner. Cobb so sublimely achieves an "old buddy" relationship with Johnny that it's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

Diana Carver is believable as the hat-wearing, churchgoing, small-town matron and proud mother of Johnny. She brings a perfect sweet-tea charm and ease to the role, and lights up the stage with her presence.

The redemption theme culminates with a charismatic yet amusing sermon by Johnny on the soul-searching work required in life, using a car as a metaphor. The sermon is Willoughby's shining moment, and he delivers it with all the verve and inspiration of a true preacher, confirmed by shouts of "Amen" from audience members.

"The Rocks Will Cry Out" is a slice of cool watermelon on a hot summer day after church. It is thoroughly refreshing even if it is a little messy. S

"The Rocks Will Cry Out" runs through June 17, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $18-$20. 4901 Old Brook Road. 355-2187.

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