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Where theres Smoke, theres a good time
Georgia Mountain Players present annual Smoke on the Mountain
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Linda Smith, right, and Dianne Martin warm up backstage at the Georgia Mountains Center during a rehearsal prior to the preview performance of "Smoke on the Mountain."

The Georgia Mountain Players have made "Smoke on the Mountain," a play filled with bluegrass gospel and Southern flair, a tradition in Gainesville for the past 15 years.

The 2008 production continues that tradition, with many sold-out performances already set to fill the seats of the Georgia Mountains Center Theater.

"It is just such a wonderful play. It's something for everybody," said Mike Martin, managing artistic director for the troupe.

Seven of the original cast members remain in the group, which also produces three to four other shows per year.

"We all have a passion for theater and acting, and I think that we all either have a combination of training in theater, dance, throughout our lives," said Jene Robocker, one of the original cast members. "And a God-given talent and a passion to use it, and it's very important to us. We hold this quite dear, what we do. We take our fun very seriously."

"Smoke on the Mountain" is set in 1938, but if you take in the show you will realize that it's not that different from present day.

It's all about a little country church, firmly set in its ways, playing host to its "very first Saturday night sing."

The audience gets to join in as "visitors," and is invited to sing some of the old hymns, including "Bringing in the Sheaves" and "I'll Fly Away."

Mount Pleasant Baptist Church has the look of many old Southern churches, with wooden paneling and pews, and a little podium that could have been plucked from any one of them.

The first church members to take a seat on one of those pews, even before the preacher arrives, are three ladies you might know.

"Every preacher that has every been to it has said that in every church they've ever been in they have the three little old ladies in their church," Martin said.

The ladies sit on the front row, clad in stockings and long-sleeved dresses, scowling as they remove the sign that says their usual pew is "reserved for musicians." Musicians! In church! As Miss Mildred, played by Rhonda Brown, says, "It's a sin!"

"I'm a sourpuss. I don't like any music being played in the church that I'm not familiar with. I don't like any instruments in the church," Brown said. "And my sisters start getting into the spirit of things, and it makes me even madder."

Brown said even though her character doesn't have a sunny disposition, she wants to put a smile on the face of every audience member.

"It makes you happy to know that you've made other people happy. That you've entertained people and made them laugh. That's my goal, is to make other people laugh," said Brown.

The Rev. Oglethorpe, played by Bruce Nunley, is one of those young preachers who is trying to bring the church into the new era.

He thinks one of the best ways to go about that is to host the Sanders family, a bluegrass gospel group who, after a hiatus, come to Mount Pleasant as the first stop on their new singing tour.

With them the Sanders bring a host of instrumentalists and dance moves, shocking those three familiar ladies - Miss Mildred, Miss Maude, played by Dianne Martin, and Miss Myrtle, played by Peggy Strickland.

As each family member gives their "witness," stories of small town, Bible belt America emerge.

The father of the family, Burl Sanders, played by Cleve Brown, shares the tale of refusing to sell beer in his roadside gas station, and his run-in with a beer salesman that reminded him of "the devil."

The brother, Dennis Sanders, played by Robbie Fields, is a twin who announces "I'm the boy," and is called to preach. He begins reading a sermon quite obviously written by his mother Vera, played by Linda Smith.

After he realizes he left the last half of the sermon on the bus, Dennis "lets God fill his mouth" as he passionately speaks about the time he preached to his dog, Rufus.

"Shake hands with Jesus, boy," he says, in his best Holy Ghost growl. "Give him your paw!"

Dennis' twin sister, "older by four minutes," makes her parents blush and riles up the three ladies as she talks about going to "movie houses" and running away to Charlotte, N.C., to try out for a part as Scarlett O'Hara.

The oldest daughter, June, played by Robocker, proudly announces that she does not sing. She signs.

Or at least she thinks she does.

"It's sign language that I have just made up," Robocker said. "You will know what I'm doing, but you will also know that I have just made it up. And I did, indeed. Sixteen years ago almost to this day, I made up what I'm doing."

As June dramatically mimes the words of every Sanders family song, she sometimes drifts into dancing, shaking her hips and doing pirouettes.

"One of the numbers that we do is a medley, and I pretty much consider it a ballet now," Robocker said.

June also provides instrumental accompaniment, concentrating hard as she stares at her maracas, often moving in front of the group and constantly angering Miss Mildred, Miss Maude and Miss Myrtle.

Robocker is so dedicated to her part as June, she stitched an exact replica of her original blouse, which became threadbare after many years of wear.

Accompanying the actors are a group of solid musicians, who rarely smile as they seriously pick and pluck, filling the theater with the uplifting sound of bluegrass gospel music.

Joining the group this year is Jake Fields, a 10-year-old guitar player who has performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage.