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Hitting home: Wayside's 'Shenandoah' shows costs of war

The cast rehearsing a church scene
Richard Follett, as the Rev. Byrd, left, speaks with Tom Simpson, who portrays Charlie Anderson, and Katherine Yacko as his wife, Jenny Anderson. At right is their son Boy Anderson, played by Troy Van Meter. The cast is rehearsing a church scene in Wayside Theatre's latest production, "Shenandoah." Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Simpson hugs Van Meter
Simpson hugs Van Meter during a rehearsal scene for "Shenandoah" at Wayside Theatre in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Tom Simpson as Charlie Anderson hugs Troy Van Meter
Tom Simpson, as Charlie Anderson, hugs his son "Boy" Robert Anderson, played by Troy Van Meter, during a rehearsal scene of "Shenandoah" at the Wayside Theatre in Middletown. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN-- The latest production at Wayside Theatre does what every good show does -- it affects you, says actor Richard Follett.

"That's one of the beauties of theater," says Follett, who plays the Rev. Byrd in "Shenandoah," by Gary Geld, Peter Udell, Phillip Rose and James Lee Barrett.

"Considering the fact that it's about our home, where we are right now, I think that was the perfect piece to do this year," says artistic director, Warner Crocker.

In preparation for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War next year, he says, "It's a perfect time to do a play that has at the center of it the American Civil War."

The play, based on the 1965 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, became a stage play in 1974 and a Broadway play the following year. "Shenandoah" tells the story of Charlie Anderson, the widower father of a large family who refuses to become involved in the war raging all around him because it would conflict with the values he and his wife taught their children.

"He is desperately trying to hold his family together," Crocker says of Charlie, played by Tom Simpson.

"It's not our war," Crocker quotes the character as saying. Before long, however, it becomes Charlie's war, when his youngest son is taken by a Union group that mistakes the 14-year-old as a Confederate soldier.

"They learn of this and go off to find the boy," Simpson says.

That's the meat of the play, Simpson says of the search for the youngest son, known only as Boy.

It is also "their search of what was taken," says Thomasin Savaiano, who plays Anne Anderson, Charlie's daughter-in-law.

As the story progresses, the war takes more family members, she says, which makes it more difficult for Charlie to hold to his beliefs.

This is "a play of trying to maintain the integrity of the core," while the outside is being degraded, says Follett. "Who Charlie is is shifting."

Crocker believes that many will be able to relate to the way in which war infiltrates a society, no matter the time period. When the original stage play was performed at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, America was fighting in the Vietnam War, Crocker points out.

In a way, he says, it was "always viewed as a profound anti-war statement ... and it absolutely is."

The United States' current conflicts lend to the emotions audience members might feel when watching the performance.

"It resonates not only with [the] Civil War but with any war," Simpson says. "It has that easy resonance for us today."

Follett says the setting of war is important to the character development.

"I think many of the characters discover who they are," he says. "Who are we when war comes calling? War defines us."

Despite trials and tribulations, the characters maintain their sense of integrity, Savaiano says.

"But at a tremendous cost, always at tremendous cost," Follett adds.

Though the subject matter is dramatic, Crocker says, it translates very well into a musical format, "because that's what musical theater does best."

It reaches into us and draws out emotion, he says.

"[It is] a very powerful entertainment," he says. "We get to see people at their best and at their worst."

"I saw this show on Broadway 30 years ago, and have wanted to do it ever since," Follett says.

He and other cast members hope that people will see the show because it's about the valley.

"It's exciting to be doing a show in this area that's about this area," he says. "It's their story, it's their history.

The show brings together Wayside regulars and some newcomers, from professionals like David Maga, Bill Diggle, Bob Payne and Steve Przybylski, to teenage actors.

Troy Van Meter, 14, plays the Boy and is joined by Brandon Wells, 12, as Gabriel; Brandon Shockey, 15, as Henry; and Daniel Russell, 17, as John.

Crocker attributes Wayside's ability to offer so many musicals to the great collection of talent the theater has found.

"As an artistic director I respond very positively to their influence on the aesthetic," he says.

One of the benefits of working with actors who are also musicians is that the orchestra is included in the cast, which Wayside has offered in many of its recent productions.

"We're able to do that again with 'Shenandoah,'" he says. The audience can expect to hear the sounds of piano, bass, guitar, banjo, clarinet, French horn, accordion and harmonica, he says.

"In some ways we're creating the sounds of the valley," he says.

"Most of them play [instruments] already," which is something that has been singular of Wayside Theatre.

"It's actually my favorite way to do a musical," Follett says. "So many directors look at material and they say, 'What do we need?' ... Warner looks at the material and says, "What have we got?'"

Follett believes that this approach to directing makes the whole play-going experience more intimate.

"I've got 11 people, what can I do?" Follett offers as an example, explaining that the Broadway production he saw had about 30 people in the pit orchestra alone, and another 35 on stage. Wayside combines the cast and the pit out of necessity, but to great effect.

"It's become a part of what we do," Crocker says. "We work very hard to find multitalented actors."

In addition to his role as the reverend, Follett also plays the bass and the flute.

"Our choreographer plays the French horn," he says of Heather Reid. Dacia Dick, who designed the playbill for "Shenandoah," also plays the clarinet in the show.

"It's wonderful. ... It's beautiful, it's just a whole new way," Follett says. "I think here in Middletown, we're ahead of a curve."

"It's a really special place ... 'cause I don't think there's another one like it anywhere."

Overall, the cast encourages local residents to join them in re-creating history.

"It isn't every day we have a show about where we are," Follett says.

"And who we are," Simpson adds. "I think people will see bits and pieces of themselves."

"This is the show to come to," Follett says. "This one's about us, it's for us, it speaks for us. ... If you've ever said the words, 'I'm going to the next show,' this is the show."

"Shenandoah" will play at Wayside Theatre in Middletown from June 5 to July 3, with performances at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. There will be no matinee performance on June 9. Ticket prices are $25 to $30 for adults, and $10 for children age 5-17. Discounts are available for students, seniors and groups. For more information, call the box office at 869-1776 or go online to www.waysidetheatre.org.


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