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'Trail’ outdoor drama marks 50 years

Rebekah Wilson • Jun 16, 2013 at 7:43 PM

The “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” outdoor drama, performed annually in Big Stone Gap, Va., will celebrate its 50th season in the newly renovated June Tolliver amphitheater with 29 performances, a Devil John Wright family reunion and a cast reunion.

Members of the 2013 cast range in age from 8 to over 70 and hail from across the region, with several being students at East Tennessee State University, Emory & Henry College and Mountain Empire Community College. All are volunteers.

Producer Barbara Polly said about 50 cast members participate in each show, and the outdoor drama is expecting a huge turnout for its cast reunion on July 26 and 27.

Polly was the first actress to play June Tolliver, a role she reprised for several seasons after her debut in 1964. She has also served as the theater’s artistic director and general manager.

She explained that hours of planning and rehearsals go into the production.

“It’s a learning experience for young people who are thinking they want to go into theater for a living,” Polly said.

She said the number of performances each season, which runs from June through August, teaches cast members how dedicated and dependable they must be as well as how to keep their energy level and spirits high.

Many actors and actresses return to perform in or direct the drama.

This year’s artistic director, Deborah Strang, played June years ago. She went on to earn her master’s degree and now teaches theatre in Los Angeles.

“We are so fortunate to have her,” Polly said.

For the first time, family members of Devil John Wright will gather for a reunion July 11-14 at the theater. Wright is the real-life inspiration for the character Devil Judd Tolliver. He had 29 children, and many of their offspring will meet for the first time at this event.

The outdoor drama connects people with their heritage and acts as a light into the mineshaft of history. The script is based on a 1908 book by John Fox Jr., who patterned his characters from the personalities of individuals living in Letcher County, Ky., in the 1880s.

It was made into a movie three times and adapted into a play that became the official drama of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1994.

Until the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” the book “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” was second in sales only to the Bible.

According to the plot, engineer John Hale comes to the area hoping to fire up a coal business and develops a friendship with June Tolliver, whose father owns land rich with coal deposits. Hale sends her off to school to study music as he learns about the humors and hardships of mountain life. The story revolves around a family rivalry between the Tollivers and the Falins. Hale’s arrival fans the flaming feud as he attempts to lay a rail line through the area.

The character June Tolliver is based on Lillian Morris as well as Fox’s wife and a composite of other women, and Bad Rufe Tolliver represents Bad Talton Hall. The Red Fox is based on Dr. Marshall B. Taylor, and according to actor Jack McClanahan, Taylor was an herb doctor and minister who also distributed liquor. He was referred to as The Red Fox of the Cumberland Gap and wore the heels on the front of his shoes so he could not be tracked. He carried a spy glass and a high-powered rifle and preached at his own funeral for two hours before he was hanged.

Devil John Wright earned a reputation in the Civil War, owned 125,000 acres, and when he was baptized, 3,000 people attended.

“It has been said that he killed seven men and not once drew first,” said McClanahan, who will play Devil Judd in this year’s production. “It seems like the truth is more bizarre than the fiction, but these characters that John Fox rolled into his novel ... depict our history quite well.”

McClanahan, 62, first acted in “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” when he was 14 and has played Devil Judd multiple times. He has held every male role in the production, and even played the character of Lily in some of the 1964 shows.

McClanahan said Wright was quite a character and looks forward to learning more about him.

There will be many opportunities to catch the show throughout the summer. Performances begin at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from June 21 through Aug. 24, except July 4. The box office opens at 7 p.m., and pre-show entertainment begins at 7:15.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for children ages 6-12 and free for children 5 and younger. Individuals in groups of 15 or more get in for $8 each. To purchase tickets in advance, visit www.trailofthelonesomepine.com or call (800) 362-0149. Tickets are also available at the door.

The theatre is part of a non-profit organization, and proceeds from ticket sales support the John Fox Jr. Museum and the June Tolliver Folk Art Center and House.

McClanahan said that since the organization’s beginning in 1963, church and community groups have banded together for a common goal with unprecedented camaraderie.

“That sense of community spirit carried forward into other aspects of the community,” he said. “It’s been said that the sense of camaraderie has led to the development of the Lonesome Pine Hospital as well as a contributing factor to the establishment of Mountain Empire Community College.”

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