Theatre Arts students venture deep into North Carolina cave country and deeper into their characters’ psyches with “Language of Angels”

In western North Carolina, half a mile underground, and surrounded by millennia-old limestone stalactites and stalagmites, the cast of the next Theatre Arts performance got a sense of the way light, sound, and psyche are distorted by the depths of a North Carolina cave. These students descended into Linville Caverns in preparation for “Language of Angels,” the department’s next play, which is set in the North Carolina “cave country” near Lenoir.

This play, written by Japanese American playwright Naomi Iizuka, is a ghost story of sorts. The play follows a group of friends who venture into a cave one night. When one of the friends becomes lost in the cave and never returns, the rest of the group must deal with the fallout of that night, their grief over the loss of their friend, and their guilty consciences.

Chosen in part for its complex themes and extensive character work, as well as to foil the department’s previous show “The Toxic Avenger,” “Language of Angels” is a highly character-driven story that bends reality and stretches the abilities of the student actors as well as guest director Elisabeth Bokhoven.

“Personally, this is the most challenging show I have directed in my career,” Bokhoven said. “We are using a lot of physical theater where movement is the primary means of telling the story. It’s a lot of actor and ensemble movement, and even crosses over into a bit of contemporary dance at moments. The stage directions in the play are really open. There is not a lot of ‘this character moves here on this line.’ Sometimes playwrights can get really prescriptive with that kind of thing, and with this there is a lot of room for us to really create this piece.”

Bokhoven said she has a collaborative directing style and has been working with the student actors to integrate their ideas into the show, particularly when it comes to their specific characters’ actions and motivations. According to freshman Musical Theatre major LillyRuth Beck, this collaborative environment has been very helpful throughout her creative process thus far, particularly in the development of her character, Allison.

“With any role, there’s going to be a bit of a blank canvas, but with this show specifically, we’re all trying to dig deep. There’s not a cut-and-paste version of everyone,” Beck said. “The acting is difficult because the piece is very emotional. It deals with what it’s like to fall from grace, and how innocence can be squandered. It’s very deep, and I personally would not necessarily think myself to be like Allison, but our director, Elisabeth Bokhoven, saw something in me, and she felt like I could do it, and I’m all for the stretch.”

“Language of Angels” marks Beck’s first show with the Theatre Arts department at Lees-McRae. Coming from a musical theater background, she said she has had to get into a different mindset for this performance, which is rawer and more contemplative than she is used to due to the show’s emotional and sometimes heavy material. While a challenge, Beck said that getting into the mindset of her character was helped by the cast trip to Linville Caverns and by her own experience growing up in Mount Airy, North Carolina, a town that is mentioned throughout the play.

This sense of place and space was also fundamental for freshman Wildlife Biology major Colton Boyette. Boyette plays Seth, the boyfriend of Celie, the girl who goes missing in the cave. Boyette has a special tie to the setting of the play as well, having grown up in Lenoir himself. Bokhoven said he has even been able to provide valuable insight into teenage life in this area of the state, helping give greater depth to some of the characters as well as social background for certain interactions. As a non-Theatre Arts major, Boyette is also making his stage debut with “Language of Angels,” and having a connection with his character through a shared personal history has been invaluable to him throughout his preparation for the show.

“You try to get yourself in that headspace,” Boyette said. “I’m from the same part of the world as he is, so it’s very easy to put myself in Lenoir in 1987/1991, and kind of get the vibe of what it was like back then.”

According to Bokhoven, “Language of Angels,” with its stunning set design, emotional story, and suspenseful tone, has a lot to offer to both the seasoned theatergoer and the newbie thespian. Lovers of ghost stories, true crime, spooky soundscapes, and the late 80s will all find something to celebrate in the show. There will be four 7:30 p.m. performances of “Language of Angels” on Wednesday, Nov. 15; Thursday, Nov. 16; Friday, Nov. 17; and Saturday, Nov. 18. There will be one matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17. All tickets are available for purchase now.

Learn more about this season of Theatre Arts performances

By Maya JarrellNovember 02, 2023