Surry Arts Council’s theater production of “Welcome to Mitford” is set for next weekend with performances Friday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, March 16 and 17, at 3 p.m. The play is based on a popular series of books written by North Carolina author Jan Karon.
At the heart of “Welcome to Mitford” is a story about love in many forms - romantic love, parental love, love of faith, and love for a community.
Often compared to Mayberry, Mitford is a fictional small town in the mountains of North Carolina, and like most small towns, it is filled with unique and quirky characters.
Director Stan Bernstein said the comparison between Mitford and Mayberry is bound to happen, since “essentially, Mitford is just a great small town in the tradition of all Southern small towns” and Mayberry is perhaps the most famous of all the fictional, Southern small towns.
“To a degree, there certainly are a lot of parallels between Mitford and Mayberry,” remarked Bernstein. “The charm of the story is that within a small town you have an incredibly diverse group of unusually neat people. In a big city you may have the same type of characters, but they sort of get lost in the crowd. In Mitford, and in Mayberry, the town is small enough that everyone knows everyone and the quirks and peculiarities of the characters are appreciated. Mitford does have that small town feel, and really, acceptance of everyone is at the heart of the story.”
Bernstein graduated from the N.C. School of the Arts and has been involved in professional and community theater for practically his entire life. This production is especially enjoyable for him because he had the chance to work with actors who have a wealth of experience, like Linda Donnell, but also those who are in their first stage production, such as Alex Bowers.
Bernstein said he has loved this opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people.
“One of the things is that going into the auditions you are always nervous about if you are going to find the right people for the parts…I am thrilled with this cast because so many of them really are these people. It has been so much fun working with them and seeing them settle into this because it comes so natural. If they are not the person they are playing, they know that character — it is someone in their church, or someone in their family. It has made my job so much easier because of this; they can truly relate to the characters.”
The main characters Father Tim and Cynthia Coppersmith are played by Greg Matthews and Linda Donnell. Also involved in the production are Alex Bowers as Dooley; Bob Keck as Stuart and JC; Vince Hancock as Hoppy, Percy, and Walter; Michelle Lawson playing Emma and Velma; Bill Hancock as Russell; and also starring Amber King, Angela Collins, Emily Brim, Elizabeth Martin, Terri Keck, Carroll Vick, Josh Wilmoth, Jason Kirkman, Robert Maple, and Betsy Manieri in various roles.
Kristie McMillan, stage manager for the production, said she has been part of “a little bit of everything” for the play, which has included designing sets, coordinating the set crew and lighting, working with props and costumes and more. “I have been here since the inception, I was at auditions, and I have been working hard ever since — joyfully, though, because I really love it. The cast is energetic and fun.”
Bernstein said that McMillan has been “unbelievable” and he is grateful for her and the stage manager’s assistant, Jake Pack, for their work: “Kristie, along with Jake and everyone working with him, they are just constantly moving, getting things ready, moving props and sets on and off stage - it is almost like a ballet. Movements have to be so precise and they have to happen at exactly the right time…so it doesn’t get in the way or distract the audience.”
The behind-the-scenes stage and lighting crew is essential for this production, as “Welcome to Mitford” contains more than 30 scenes. Bernstein said he never dreamt there were more than 60 sound cues when he first read the script a few years ago. He said the “charming, small town aspect” of the play appealed to him, so he brought it up to the council’s Executive Director Tanya Jones and they both agreed it was perfect for the audience in Mount Airy.
In addition to the multiple sound and lighting cues, the play covers a ten-year time span. Stage manager Kristie McMillan said the time lapse has been difficult, since the two main characters age ten years over the course of the play. The aging process is shown through the use of makeup, and also through the role of the adopted son, who is played by two different people — Alex Bowers as the young Dooley and Josh Wilmoth as the older Dooley.
“Welcome to Mitford” can be challenging for some community theater groups, but the cast and crew of the Surry Arts Council production were up to the challenge from the beginning, according to Bernstein. “I’m amazed that the show works as well as it does; the technical aspects of it are just enormous…when the play was written, he (playwright Robert Inman) worked with the first 6 books in the series. I could compare that to trying to condense all the Harry Potter books into one movie. That kind of challenge is unbelievable; the idea that they were able to tell this epic story on stage in one single play, it is nothing short of remarkable.”
Tickets for the production are $10 each (or free with a season pass) and are available for purchase through the Surry Arts Council website at surryarts.org or by calling 786-7998.