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Locals take in outdoor drama

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Along around mid afternoon, on a Saturday in late June, a merry band of travelers rolled out of downtown LaFollette. They traveled up Powell Valley to Cumberland Gap and on to the Wilderness Road, past Martin’s Station, to Jonesville, Va., traversing through a wall of showers over the Trail of the Lonesome Pine to Big Stone Gap, Va. The other side of Pine Mountain was their destination. It was opening night 2014 for the outdoor drama, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, based on John Fox Jr.’s Civil War era novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, at the Little Shepherd Amphitheater near Jenkins, Ky. The cast, many being descendants of those, who, in 1861, rallied to preserve the Union, lent added authenticity to the picturesque surroundings deep in the woods of the Cumberlands. The rustic, yet well-designed venue set the stage for the drama that would soon unfold. The site, historical in its own right, was the setting of the March 16, 1862, Civil War Battle of Pound Gap, fought by Union troops under the leadership of General James A. Garfield. (Garfield was elected the 20th president of the United States less than 20 years later.)

The production begins with Chad, the little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (Matt Stewart), striking out on his own with his sheepdog Jack in hopes of avoiding being bound out to a neighbor after the death of the entire family with which he had been living. Before long, the twosome met another family who would take them in and send Chad to school for the first time. Despite the lack of any previous schooling, he learned quickly. Like many mountain youths of his generation, his academic deficiencies were a result of a lack of opportunity rather than ability. Caleb Hazel, the school master (Ray Jones), was also the narrator. In his narration, Hazel described Chad as his “best student.”

Daniel Hurst, who portrayed Chad as a child last year, has outgrown the role and came back as Dan Dean. Chad, and the Dean brothers — Harry (Matthew Palmer) and Dan — all came of age as the nation came part. Harry and Chad joined the Union Army, while Dan joined the Confederate Army. I was disappointed that Taylor Horton, who portrayed Chad as an adolescent and an adult, did not return this season. However, his replacement, Brian Ritchie, presented a convincing debut performance.

As is to be expected, the drama did, at times, deviate from the 1903 novel. The final scene is sure to surprise those familiar with Fox’s original work.

Opening night could hardly be expected to pass without some sort of a glitch. Minutes into the performance, Jack, the sheepdog, made an escape from the stage and bounded out into the audience. Accompanying the merry band of travelers from the Volunteer County of the Volunteer State to the show, Ann Dove Sharp was an original cast member of Old Smokey, an outdoor drama produced in the 1970s at the site of the Old Eagle Bluff Hotel at Jacksboro. The script for Old Smoky was written by retired Lincoln Memorial University associate professor of speech and drama Earl Hobson Smith. Another of Smith’s plays, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, based on John Fox Jr.’s novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, continues to be performed every summer at Big Stone Gap, Va.
The director of Old Smokey, Victor Byrd, and the original cast members were all local. Its primary conflict revolved around Sheriff Dolittle’s (James Siler) pursuit of the moonshining Abner Saxton (Robert Sharp). In the meantime, Abner’s daughters, April (Suzanne Stout) and Ginger (Anne Dove Sharp), had fallen in love with young men representative of the outside world. Ginger’s beau, Professor William Snodgrass (Homer Rutherford), came to the mountains to study insects and animals. April had met her man, Smiley Inman (Frank Payne), in the valley. Non-speaking parts included Connie Rogers, Jill Rogers, Jamie Sharp and Leeann Sharp, who sat on the porch as children. The program also featured the music of the Blue Valley Boys, including Curtis Caldwell, “Red” Harrison, Dean Huddleston, Elmer Longmire, Monroe Queener and Robert Stephens.

Fox’s first novel, A Mountain Europa, is set in the Jellico area. Within close proximity to Interstate 75, Indian Mountain State Park would make an ideal setting for an amphitheater to bring the love story of Clayton and Easter to life upon the stage. Pine Mountain, central to the epic story, would make an ideal backdrop for an outdoor drama. Perhaps townspeople, weary of the incessant drama at Jellico’s town hall, might plan a performance of Fox’s A Mountain Europa for next year. But, first someone must write a script. Writer’s note: The 2014 season for the Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come runs through August 30. With the exception of 8 p.m. on Friday August 22, all productions will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday. For more detailed information or directions, call 606-832-1453 or email littleshepherd@windstream.net.

Joe Stephens is a local historian whose columns appear weekly on the history page of the LaFollette Press.