July 3, 2004
'Stonewall Country' closes tonight
'I just think it's time,' Lime Kiln artistic director John Healey says of ending the 20-year-old production.
By Kevin Kittredge
Tonight at Lime Kiln theater in Lexington, the ground will shake, the sky will fall, and the theater will slowly sink into the sea.
Or maybe it just seems that way.
This much is certain: "Stonewall Country," one of the picturesque outdoor theater's first and surely its best-known production, synonymous in many minds with Lime Kiln itself, shuts down tonight after a 20-year run.
Credit (or blame) artistic director John Healey for the bold move. Under Healey, the theater has been slowly gaining back believers after a rough stretch in the 1990s when it went through several artistic directors and struggled to stay afloat financially. It has added an indoor venue, The Troubadour, and new plays.
Healey said they are ready to move on. "No one has threatened to hang me yet. I just think it's time. A lot of the music has an '80s feel to it. Lime Kiln is certainly lots more than 'Stonewall.'"
Healey said even Don Baker, Lime Kiln's co-founder and author of the play's script, told him it was probably time to put the show to rest. "He said he would have ended it long ago."
Truth be told, by the time you read this, "Stonewall Country" as a coherent play already is just a memory. Tonight's $50 per person gala performance will mix excerpts from the play with reminiscences by Baker and "Stonewall" chestnuts sung by former cast members, including Robin and Linda Williams - who wrote them.
The folk/country duo, who often appear on Garrison Keillor's popular "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, performed in "Stonewall Country" themselves for six years. They finally had to give it up to make some money in the summertime, Robin Williams said. *
Note to the uninitiated: "Stonewall Country" is a musical about the life of Confederate general Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson - a one-time instructor at Virginia Military Institute and a Lexington icon.
Robin Williams described the writing of "Stonewall Country" as a collaborative process with Baker, in which Lime Kiln's co-founder would work on the script until it needed a song - at which point they took over.
Their efforts have endured. Songs such as "Proud Valley Boys," " Freak -out," " The War's Gone Bad on Me" and others are now as familiar as Broadway show tunes to Lime Kiln regulars, and it's not unusual to hear theater goers sing along with the title song - a kind of Appalachian anthem that celebrates the surrounding countryside:
"I may leave the Shenandoah
But she'll never leave my heart.
Stone Wall country
Clear-eyed daughter of the stars."
Alas, no more.
"All things must pass," said Williams, who will attend tonight's gala with his wife, Linda, and their bass player, Jim Watson (who also has performed in "Stonewall Country" in years past). "On the one hand, it's sad to see it go. On the other hand, it's had a good long run. John Healey knows exactly what he's doing."
Still, Williams said he saw the show on opening night this season for the first time in years, and "it was like seeing an old friend."
Indeed, such is the magic of "Stonewall Country" that its closing has even enticed Baker back. Lime Kiln's co-founder and artistic director for nine years left unhappily in early 1993 after a series of internecine battles over the theater's red ink.
Currently a director and actor living in Wilmington, N.C., Baker has never been back to see a production at Lime Kiln, or seen "Stonewall Country" since he last directed it in 1992.
Until now, that is.
How did artistic director Healey talk him into it?
"A phone call," said Healey, a former Washington, D.C., actor who came to Lime Kiln after the 2000 summer season. "I think he's curious. This is a part of his life. It's been a long time."
ŅI had to think about it," Baker admitted. "I decided there was no reason not to."
Williams agrees: "It should be fun being back."
But after all these years, will he really remember the songs? "Uhhhhhhh - yeah!"
For the record, Healey said he has no replacement lined up for "Stonewall Country."
"You don't replace 'Stonewall Country,'" the director said. "Replace 'The Fantasticks.' Replace 'Cats.' But not 'Stonewall.'"