By STEVEN NALLEY
In “Feeding on Mulberry Leaves,” the character of Winky Flint could be mistaken easily for Larry the Cable Guy.
However, beneath the gruff voice, casual swagger, plaid shirt and blue jeans, the actor playing Winky at Starkville Community Theatre, Bart Debicki, is originally from Poland. His marketing career has taken him to New York, where he first learned English, and Germany, and he’s studying at Mississippi State University for his PhD.
“I never had a problem imitating accents or learning language,” Debicki said. “I’m trying not to take credit for it. It’s a gift. I guess some people have it, and some don’t.”
On April 7-10 and 12-16, Starkville Community Theatre will stage “Feeding on Mulberry Leaves,” a play that explores Southern family dynamics and generational tensions.
Showtimes are 2 p.m. for Sunday matinees and 7:30 p.m all other days. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for general admission.
The show takes place in 1996 in the tourist town of Natural Bridge, Va, where Winky Flint owns a convenience store he intends to pass on to his son, Jeb. However, Jeb wants to pursue a career in fashion and clashes with his father. Meanwhile, Jeb’s brother Kenny secretly sells marijuana, his sister Wanda struggles to get Winky’s attention, and his mother Jean pursues a GED.
The play will be Debicki’s first experience with acting, but he said he didn’t want it to be his last. He said he had performed on stage before, as part of a band called The Fourth Law, but acting on stage was different and new.
“I just wanted to see what an audition looked like,” Debicki said. “I just got up there and had fun, and two days later they called me. I didn’t know it about myself, but I really enjoy acting.”
The play’s director, Mary-Kay Belant, said no one would ever guess Debicki was new to theatre from his performance.
“He’s just been phenomenal,” Belant said. “We’ve all been astonished. He performs and rehearses like someone who’s had professional training.”
Belant said she visited the real-life town of Natural Bridge, obtaining brochures and other props for use on the play’s set. She said the opportunity arose when she took her son and younger daughter to Rhode Island for spring break.
“It just turned out that the route included Interstate 81, and Natural Bridge is just off 81,” Belant said. “We just wanted to see the atmosphere here. There’s a petting zoo, for instance, that’s mentioned in the play, and there’s actually a petting zoo there.”
Belant said she also visited the Barter Theatre, where “Feeding On Mulberry Leaves” premiered and won the Appalachian Playwrights Festival in 2004. The actor who originally played Jeb is now in Barter’s production of “Xanadu,” and Belant said she got to talk to him about her production.
“It was a great pleasure to see that actor as a more mature actor,” Belant said. “I got some insights.”
Joby Prince, assistant director, said Belant had also been contacted by the playwright for “Feeding on Mulberry Leaves,” Lucinda McDermott.
“We appear to be one of the only theatres that has done this play,” Prince said. “She actually contacted the director to say she was excited we’re doing the play.”
Prince said a lot of people, especially those raised in the South, will identify with the play and its characters. She said the plot seems like the kind of thing that could happen in Starkville.
She also said while the play is a comedy on the surface, pieces of it are sad and dramatic. The source of the title illustrates this; Prince said it comes from Jeb’s entrance essay for the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
“He talks about silkworms, the Bombyx Mori silkworm,” Prince said. “It eats mulberry leaves, and when it’s finally full, it starts producing silk for its cocoon, but then they put that cocoon in an oven. Most of them die, and very few of them get to fly. He kind of feels like this silkworm that maybe isn’t going to make it.”
Debicki said the juxtaposition of comedy and drama and the relevance to audiences are major reasons he likes the play.
“It’s a very serious situation that I imagine a lot of people go through, that clash of two generations,” Debicki said. “Jeb becoming a fashion designer obviously doesn’t fit into Winky’s world. Those nuances, those relationships, are fascinating to me, and on top of that, it’s taking place in an environment I’m relatively unfamiliar with.”