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Revisiting Mary’s Story: Actor who portrayed Mary Draper Ingles collaborates with RU professor to revise script

By BROOKE J. WOOD

brooke@www.southwesttimes.com

Kathleen Harshberger and Wesley Young didn’t know six months ago they would be called upon to revise a script based on the life of the renowned Mary Draper Ingles.

But Dick Harshberger, Kathleen’s husband and first director of “The Long Way Home,” got the wheels turning last fall when a sculpture of the local heroine was unveiled at the Glencoe Museum in Radford. During his speech that blustery October day, he invoked Ingles devotees to “bring Mary home.”

He is also Radford’s vice mayor.

A committee formed and began meeting weekly in February, and as the group came closer to deciding to bring Ingles’ story back in some form, they knew they needed a revised script, director and venue. Committee member Mark Gordon offered Nesselrod on the New, a bed and breakfast in Fairlawn, as the venue. Molly Hood, a Radford University assistant professor in the theater and cinema department, was tapped to direct.

“They approached us to amend the script, to do something with it. And we liked each other and happily said ‘yes’,” Kathleen Harshberger explains.

Harshberger and Young were already a collaborative pair. Young lives in Pulaski and is a professor in RU’s department of theater and cinema.

As Harshberger explains, “Wesley and I have known and admired each other for years. In fact, Dick and I were in a play that Wesley directed last year – ‘Anything Goes.’ He asked us to play a couple of cameo roles.”

This year she played Lady Bracknell in his production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Harshberger, who portrayed Ingles under several different directors during at least six seasons, had revised the script three times before – for the Hotel Roanoke, for the 200th anniversary of Blacksburg’s founding and for a summer run at Radford High School.

“Of course, I was happy to work on a collaboration with Kathleen at any time,” Young says.

He adds that he didn’t have the same foundation as Harshberger, but he had read all versions of the play and consulted other sources.

“I kept going down these rabbit holes of research and reading about things,” he says. “Even two days ago, I was looking for pawpaws, and saying I want to taste one of those. It’s just such a fascinating story.”

When it came down to it, he shares that he knew he had to stop researching and start writing “because, in the end, it has to be a dramatic piece.”

Harshberger says she knew she could rewrite it again, but adds, “I also knew Wesley would bring a fresh approach to it. He and I have collaborated. He knows I’m not giving it to him. I’ve done it. So, I don’t need to really rewrite and redo what I’ve done. But I have an input into it, and I like what Wesley’s doing. It’s definitely a collaboration.”

She adds, “Our story is the Mary Draper Ingles story, but it’s not ‘The Long Way Home’.”

“For people who knew and loved ‘The Long Way Home,’ I think this will be welcomed, and I think they will enjoy it, but it isn’t that script,” Young offers.

Of course, it’s still the story of the woman who was captured during the 1775 Draper’s Meadow Massacre. It’s still the story of her escape from captivity, and successful journey home and into history.

Harshbarger knows the original drama well.

She and her husband had been active in the theater before arriving in Blacksburg. “We had both been acting professionally and were anxious to get involved in theater here. There weren’t many opportunities to do so,” she explains.

He was teaching at Virginia Tech when a member of the drama committee of the New River Valley Historical Society asked him about directing the play based on the script by Earl Hobson Smith.

He accepted and, with stage manager Tim Elmore, many changes were made to that script with Smith’s permission. Of course, auditions were held and actors were selected, and the play opened in summer 1971.

“Dick wouldn’t cast me. Our marriage survived, barely,” Harshberger quips.

But she helped behind the scenes. “I was sort of his gofer and his ears and eyes. We did everything. You know, everything had to be decided on.”

As she explains, along with casting actors, the stage had to be built and the amphitheater dug on the Ingles Farm in Radford.

Harshberger was first cast as Mary Draper Ingles for the play’s second summer. “It was a great privilege for me to play Mary Draper Ingles. No matter how I felt going to the theater, when I put on the makeup and costume on, I was Mary Draper Ingles.”

The Harshbergers eventually moved to Radford, which they preferred for living and their children’s education. Their children were all cast, at one time or another, as Ingles’ children in the play.

It was the longest running outdoor historical drama in Virginia before a 1999 fire took out the lighting tower. If that mishap hadn’t ended the production, she thinks it would have continued in some form. “I think it would have been going, but in a different form, especially now, since there’s such an interest in tourism. There wasn’t such an interest in tourism back then.”

Of course, for a play with such a huge cast, live horses and lengthy script, it had to be adapted for its venue.

When they were first asked to revise the original play, one of Young’s first thoughts was that he wished they had more time.

“But I believe it was probably Molly who persuaded the committee that it wasn’t going to be the sweeping epic it had been with live horses and gunfire and all that stuff – and that, for this first revival of the story, it would need to be somewhat more contained. It would need to be like some of the other adaptations Kathleen has done over the years,” Young explains.

“First drafts are done, but that’s not the final draft,” Harshberger says of their current rewrite.

The truncated script has five actors portraying several characters from the original production – Mary Draper Ingles, her mother, the French trader, Mrs. Bingham (the German woman who escaped with Ingles), as well as key Native Americans Cornstalk and Black Fish.

Since there wasn’t much time to prepare for the first season, Young says it will be similar to a “staged reading,” although it won’t be stationary.

“There is a new trend in staged readings to have actors move more, and to use props and costumes as opposed to staged readings of the past where people were in street clothes behind music stands,” he says.

“It’s very much a play. It will be a fluid and moving production. It’s not static,” Harshberger emphasizes.

“The first go-around, it’s going to take a good bit of imagination to tell,” Young elaborates. “It’s a big story, and to tell it with live actors, there will be a lot of things suggested. For instance, I’d love if the children were in it, but our version doesn’t write them in. But, of course, they are referred to.”

He shares that he’s “fallen in love with the story. It’s a tough story but it’s an extraordinary story, if you look at everything [Ingles] went through and then came back home and had a full life and a long life. I’m amazed and keep asking myself if I’d have the courage to do what she did when she encounters this or that obstacle. I didn’t expect to be as excited about it either, but once I got into it, I just think it bears telling again and again.”

“I’m very excited about it. I didn’t expect to be this excited about it because it is in my past,” Harshberger notes. “I’ve loved every minute of it, and I’m very proud of the work that I did with it. I hope everyone who’s talked to my husband and me about bringing the Mary Draper Ingles story back will come out and support it so we can really get going, and get a real amphitheater built in the next few years.”

The play will take place at the Nesselrod on June 25, July 30, Aug. 27 and Sept. 24. More details and tickets are available at nesselrod.com.

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