Saturday, July 10, 2004

 

'Stonewall' Exits Kiln Stage

 

by Roberta Anderson

 

"Stonewall Country" received thundering ovations from both an enthusiastic audience and Mother Nature as the original Theater at Lime Kiln production ended its 20-year run Saturday night.

 

The musical was written by Don Baker, in collaboration with singer/songwriters Robin and Linda Williams, and all three were present for the final performance, along with a number of original cast members.

 

Stormy weather forced the actors and audience to take refuge toward the end of the first act under the big theater tent. However, the frequent claps of thunder enhanced the usual pyrotechnics and elicited occasional ad-libs from the actors. It was, for both cast and audience, an intimate evening, beginning with the opening guitar chords of the play's signature song, "Stonewall Country," as audience members spontaneously joined the actors in singing the rousing tune.

 

The action on stage was also interrupted by frequent and enthusiastic bursts of applause and some impromptu performances, as former cast members, including the Williamses, dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts, fell in among the regular ensemble clad in period finery on stage.

 

Linda Williams joined in with some solo work during "My One and Only Little Someone" and "Don't Let Me Come Home a Stranger" in her rich vibrato. Numbers like "Seven Day Freak-Out" and "Battling Anthems" brimmed with energy with the presence of former cast members, who threw themselves into their previous roles.

 

The final hymn, "Let Us Cross Over the River," conveyed even more anguish, yet a sense of peace, as members of the Civil War reenactment group, the Stonewall Brigade, appeared on stage to carry the body of Stonewall Jackson from the field.

 

The musical tells the story of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, beginning with his orphaned youth in what is now West Virginia and his time at West Point and service in the Mexican War. It follows him through his years spent in Lexington as a professor at Virginia Military Institute and then as a general in the Confederate army. It is as much the story of Jackson, the man, as it is of Jackson, the general.

 

Lime Kiln has also always seemed to be a perfect fit for the play. With its towering rock walls and secretive caves, the outdoor setting has been uniquely suited for the Civil War drama. Actors making their entrances could suddenly appear out of the night, sometimes high above the audiences to deliver their lines. "Sentries" could actually clamber up trees to perform their parts.

 

For Diane Rencsok, who had traveled from Roanoke for Saturday's performance to see the play for the third time, the best part is the staging. "I just love the set and the way the actors come on and off," she said.

 

Patrons who filled the theater received a CD of the original cast recording and a commemorative booklet that contained much of the information from the program of the first performance of "Stonewall Country" in 1985. The theater was at that time known as Festival Theater at Rock Kiln Ruin. Also contained in the booklet are pictures and biographies of the original company, including Robin and Linda Williams, Spruce Henry, Tom Conway and Doug Harwood, who once again appeared on stage for the final performance.

 

Also appearing were former cast members Barry Mines, James Leva, James Watson and Cherie Sheppard, as well as members of the Rockbridge Community Chorus, the precursor to the Rockbridge Choral Society, who were part of the ensemble in the early years.

 

John Healy, current artistic director for the theater, introduced the final performance, scheduled to be an abridged version. However, after rain forced Friday's performance to go under the tent, the decision was made to run the full play one final time "under the stars."

 

Prior to the performance, Thomas Spencer of Lexington, who was instrumental in bringing the professional theater to Lexington, told the crowd that his initial reaction to a musical about Stonewall Jackson was that the concept was "crazy as hell, but with Don Baker that's what you expect."

 

Baker then told the audience that he got a similar reaction from museum staffs and other historians as he proceeded with his research. "It's a local story," he commented later regarding the play's enduring popularity. "And I think that it is pretty honest. There were people throughout the state that helped me with the historical research."

 

Baker, who now lives in North Carolina, said he chose to write about Jackson because "he was a very atypical Civil War figure and I didn't want [the play] to be that kind of standard look at that period.

 

"Once we decided to go ahead [with the play], we went to look for the people who know how to write songs from history and life, and they lived right up the road," Baker said, referring to Robin and Linda Williams.

 

Many of those who paid the $50 price for the Stonewall gala tickets Saturday evening were there to see Robin and Linda Williams perform. The couple had just returned to their Augusta County home following a tour on the West Coast.

 

"We're groupies," said Tanya Benneman of Stuarts Draft with a laugh. She and her husband, Leland, were seeing "Stonewall Country" for the third and final time. "We grab any excuse to see Robin and Linda Williams perform," she added.

 

Linda Williams said following the performance that she had never expected that the play would continue to attract audiences for 20 years. She said she believes the reason for the musical's longevity is, quite simply, Stonewall Jackson. "It was a great topic. I think it turned out to be the kind of entertainment that people can really get behind. And it's really the audience that helped it to become the kind of institution that it became. The audience has embraced it so much. And that's what this evening was about the audience."

 

"It was huge fun to see some of the old cast members, some of whom we have not seen since '91," Robin Williams added. "It was like old home week."

 

The Williamses performed with the show from 1985 to '89 and again in '91. "So we know these lines inside and out," Robin Williams said. "We were here every night for all of those years.

 

"I was just so pleased with how well the play and the music have stood up, and Don Baker's words and story," he continued. "We wrote it and were in it for so many years that enough time has passed for us to have some sort of ability to look at it and see that it is still a really viable piece. It's been a real source of pleasure for us."

 

The Williamses, along with Baker and Spencer, were also presented with a photograph of the Stonewall Jackson statue on the Virginia Military Institute campus by Healy prior to the evening's performance.

 

Over the years, a total of 174 actors have appeared on stage in the musical, with eight different Stonewalls and 16 Anna Jacksons. The show has also evolved and changed from a series of vignettes told by different cast members to the present format of two narrators, one African American and one white, a tradition that came about largely because of Spruce Henry. Several "Stonewall Country" and Lime Kiln actors have gone on and achieved national recognition, including Jason Kravitis, who appeared in "The Practice," and Thomas Gibson, best known for "Dharma and Greg."

 

Healy, whose decision it was to end the show's run, wrote in the program, "Twenty years is a very long life for a production and I felt `Stonewall Country' was becoming an attraction rather than a show. ... Lime Kiln was built on the tradition of introducing new ideas through the age old art of storytelling that is so linked with this area's history."

 

"We went out in true Lime Kiln fashion what with the rain and everything," Healy said following the performance. He added that at this time there are no plans for a revival of the production in the future.

 

In his program notes, Healy also wrote, "You don't replace `Stonewall Country' or even try. Like life, you celebrate the production and all that it has meant and then start to look around the corner to see what adventure lies in store."