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Swift Creek Mill's "Livin' in the Light" makes for glorious gospel even when the theater's thin. 

Survival through Revival

The rhythm of life is a powerful beat. The new musical offered by the Swift Creek Mill Theatre, "Livin' in the Light," resounds with that rhythm, practically throbbing with heartfelt religious intensity. And the power doesn't just come from the music: Singer/musician Cora Harvey Armstrong, who plays herself in this chronicle of her life, has the kind of personal magnetism that can captivate even a heathen like me. Together, the songs and the singer make good something that, as theater, is only about average. Playwright/director Tom Width uses his theatrical know-how to enhance what is essentially an old-fashioned revival meeting, with Armstrong bearing witness to her faith. Leaving her rural Virginia home for college, she was seduced by drugs and men, marrying and divorcing an abusive husband. She was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and had to have sections of her intestines removed. After being left by a second husband, with her third husband she finally found happiness and a life filled with devotion and song.

Width constructs some solid scenes, particularly early-on. A tˆte-…-tˆte where Armstrong asks her mother for guidance is both funny and touching. But other opportunities to dramatize Armstrong's story are missed. The interlude involving sex and drugs is tossed off in a line or two. Some of Armstrong's major life transitions are signaled by her delivery of lines like, "So I decided to start a singing group," or, "And then Daddy got sick." With no buildup of dramatic tension, we're left feeling remarkably little about an obviously remarkable woman.

It's only when she lifts her voice in song that we really feel anything, and what comes through is the strength of Armstrong's devotion to God. Her voice rumbles and soars while her fingers dance nimbly across the piano keyboard. Backed by six other accomplished vocalists (including her mother, niece and two sisters) known collectively as "Full Deliverance," Armstrong delivers roof-raising renditions of songs such as "I Will Sing Praises" and "Highway to Heaven."

Though excellent singers, "Full Deliverance" is an uneven acting crew. Jerone Davis shows the most self-assurance in his role as Armstrong's first husband, and Armstrong's mother, Elizabeth Harvey, commands respect with her unwavering poise.

Using a palette dominated by purple, costume designer Scott Lynwood Joyce has outfitted this crew in some fine flowing vestments. The lighting, designed by Bill Jenkins, provides the most striking visual element onstage, a large internally lit cross that looms in the background.

Near the end of the brisk 80-minute show, Armstrong says "I've been through some dark times in my life." As incompletely illuminated here, those times seem simply dim. Still, the dazzling power of the music infuses this show with the energy to lighten the hearts of those who see it.

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