“In Barbara’s Blue Kitchen I always feel better
Time winds by wet salt slow and heartbeat fast
She shelters my heart from the storms that I weather
With her corn puddin’ smile and her mashed potato gravy laugh”
These inviting lyrics in the title song of Barbara’s Blue Kitchen immediately let the audience know what they are about to receive. The clever yet homespun words and tune are automatically comforting and draw audience members into a familiar world. They bring us back to memories of our favorite diner, the proprietors of those warm establishments, and the loyal diners that inhabit them.
Growing up in a small town in the South, “meat and three” diners, as we called them, were prevalent. They were where families dined after church on Sunday, where men would meet for breakfast to discuss the politics of the town, where ladies met for lunch to catch up on the daily gossip. These are traditional southern comforts that nourish the body as well as the soul. I felt a kinship to these establishments as I would attend them with my family. They became a weekly tradition and a home away from home. The wait staff became extended family. They knew and, more importantly, cared who you were and what was going on in your life.
When I first heard of Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, I immediately was drawn to the title as it reawakened these childhood memories. I longed to be immersed in that world again, to smell the food being cooked, to engage with the patrons once more. What I found was all of this and more. I saw playwright Lori Fischer perform the piece in Nashville as it was originally written — essentially a one-woman show with a guitar player who also played the role of the DJ. I was blown away by the story and continued to talk about it for the hour-and-a-half car ride home to Crossville, TN. Lori played all seven “diner characters” ranging in both age and gender. I was so moved by her performance, her words, and her music that I thought, “I have to direct this and bring it to the Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville! Our patrons live in this world that she has created, and they will identify with each of these fully realized characters. They live with them, they work with them, they are them.” Lori’s production was produced with a very minimalistic set and basic costuming and props. I saw every bit of that diner and every single detail of each character through the warmth and humanity that this show evokes.
We were looking for a small musical to produce in our black box theater that seats 250 people around a thrust stage. We have two resident actors, one male and one female, that our audiences adore, and I had the thought to divide the diner characters between the two of them with a third actor playing the DJ. It worked like a charm. The female actress played three of the female characters with the male portraying both genders with the remaining four. There was never any added dialogue between them, but it appeared as if the diner was always bustling and full of customers. Our set was based on a diner that I frequent in our small town and we created a replica of that on stage with minimal costume changes. Both actors had a base costume and provided additives as they transitioned from one character to the next — a baseball hat, a lanyard, glasses, etc.
What connected with our audiences was the humanity of the piece. Lori’s words and lyrics are heartfelt and honest. At one moment you are doubled over with laughter and the next you are moved to tears. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s life. She has an uncanny knack of speaking straight to your heart both with her script and song lyrics. Her melodies are infectious, and you will find yourself humming these catchy, melodic tunes for months to come. The imagery that each song conjures immediately takes you to another world, a simpler world full of unpretentious charm.
It was a joy to direct this show and to once more be immersed in the world that I loved so much. Just as you are nourished by the food and comfort of your favorite diner, Barbara’s Blue Kitchen becomes well-needed nourishment for your soul.
(photo: Walt Riches)