Radio Days: Bluffton takes center stage in Larry Hughes' 'Red Christmas'

November 1, 2010 

Larry Hughes has always been an audio sort of guy, starting with his early days listening to radio dramas as a kid to his days as a DJ at a college jazz station in New Jersey. He's also a loyal fan of "Prairie Home Companion," the venerable weekly public radio show hosted by Garrison Keillor that has somehow -- despite all evidence that would say otherwise -- remained a huge hit in the age of iPads and Netflix.

The reason, said Hughes, a 20-year Bluffton resident, is because the sonic silliness of the show taps into pure feelings of Americana and imagination.

"Part of it is a return to an era when things were simpler and cleaner and broader," he said. "I think there's a bit of nostalgia that keeps it going."

The "theater of the mind" idea is an enticing one for Hughes, which is why he wrote and directed the original play "I'm Dreaming of a Red Christmas," an original comical farce running for its second time ever at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall on Friday and Saturday.

The play opens on Christmas Eve 1952, when a Russian spy submarine sent to the Lowcountry to monitor shipping traffic attempts goes up the May River for shelter. But, like anyone who doesn't know the particular and potentially hazardous layout of local waterways, the sub gets caught in the pluff mud, forcing the Russians to go ashore and interact with quirky bits of local life during the holiday season, from the good ol' boy natives to the infamous Bluffton speed trap.

But the play really takes place in the audience's minds. The play will be performed like an old-time live radio recording, with the 10-member cast standing on stage and a sound effects booth alongside to provide the sounds -- dropping a burlap sack full of nuts and bolts to indicate a mechanical sound, for instance, and other effects to simulate an extending periscope or an opening safe.

"You can't rely on scenery or costumes or the usual showbiz props," he said. "It has to be done with complete interaction with cast and the audience."

Though the plot is fiction, it's steeped in local lore since Hughes spent years as the director of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, where he picked up bits about the history of the area and its visitors. He also pulled from his own love of old radio shows such as the "Green Hornet" and "The Lone Ranger" when writing the script.

"You have to write in terms of the voices you hear in your head," he said. "It's comedic, but still there are some times when you're trying to inject a little message in there."

Using subtle satire, the play also touches on the feelings outsiders encounter when they first set foot in Bluffton -- something Hughes has seen not just as an outsider himself but also through his work with the historical society.

"There's always this kind of bias or prejudice against those who've been here and those who have arrived," he said.

Hughes, 67, a mostly retired marketing and relations professional, first wrote and directed the play a year ago. But the new cast contains several of what Hughes calls "high-level amateurs" who inject new life into the performance.

The play is a benefit for Casting for Recovery, a nonprofit organization that helps breast cancer patients and survivors through fly-fishing retreats and instruction. The group hopes to raise $20,000 to hold free weekend retreats for survivors at Palm Key, the nature resort on the banks of the Broad River.

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