By Jeff Whitfield
For the Salisbury Post
I have not seen a Piedmont Players play in probably more than 30 years, which sounds absurd to me.
But when my dad, John Whitfield, mentioned to me that “The Innocents” was being done again, I knew it was time for a visit to Salisbury and time to see a Piedmont Players play ó especially since I had played the part of Miles the first time around, when I was 11 years old, in 1971.
My mother, D.J. Whitfield, had been in lots of plays and was very active with Piedmont Players for many years along with my father, who often filled the duty of house manager. By the time my sister Jennifer and I were able to speak, we were led to tryouts like two blind mice.
But it worked out well, and I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences of being in any of the plays.
When my dad called up mentioning that he had run across the old review for “The Innocents” in 1971, I was very curious about what had been said. It was a good review, and it referred to the two children’s performances as “unhesitating,” which meant a lot since the critics that reviewed the plays for the Salisbury Post back then were rarely patronizing ó even to young actors.
Many memories began to flash through my mind as I thought more about Piedmont Players productions.
The first play I was ever in was “Life with Father.” The humorous autobiographical book of stories written in 1936 by Clarence Day. It was adapted into a hit Broadway show in 1939 and in 1947 it was made into a movie which introduced Elizabeth Taylor on film as a mature teenager. In 1967, Piedmont Players Theatre took a stab at it. Salisburian Leanard Kruea played the stern patriarch and Peg Barnes was the ditzy mother. Pam Adams was great as the teenage love interest. The director for Piedmont Players at the time, Millard McDonald, apparently couldn’t choose from all the boys that tried out and he wound up taking the liberty of reconstructing the play and casting about six boys to play three parts, making us all a set of twins.I was 7 and excited to be a twin, and just think, we only had to memorize half the lines. I think the twin thing made the whole play more fun. I’m not sure what the critics of the day had to say about it.
Tryouts were serious business, as I remember. When children were involved, they would generally be conducted conveniently on Sunday afternoons, often at the Catawba College Crystal Lounge which offered a huge space with lots of natural light and raw acoustics.
It wasn’t a good day to be shy, because when they called your name you better be listening up and get out there to the center of the huge room and stand on the “X” marked with masking tape, and you better speak up because the directors were not there for games and you either showed that you really wanted to be in the play or you definitely would not be.
“Oliver,” adapted from the Charles Dickens novel “Oliver Twist” written in 1838, was a classic. It was an ambitious undertaking by Piedmont Players around 1968 and it was presented on the big stage at Catawba. A large circular platform on the stage would rotate as the lights went down to reveal a total of about three different sets. This was my second play and I felt lucky just to get to be one of the “artful Dodger’s” gang even though I didn’t have any lines. A large number of kids tried out that Sunday.
But when Dennis Bunker was called out to sit on a rickety old stepladder and try his luck at singing “Where Is Love,” the part of Oliver was immediately no longer available and everybody knew it. Dennis, who was also one of my roommates at North Myrtle Beach one summer, did a great job. I honestly think he could have done this part on Broadway.
When I tried out for “The Innocents,” there wasn’t a tremendously large turnout for the young male part. I remember David Thawe had a great English accent but they said he was a bit too mature.
The young girl’s part seemed to be between Simone Grant and Wynn Isenhour. Wynn had a great scream during tryouts and I thought she just might pull off an upset, but Simone prevailed as the more experienced young girl. Dennis Bunker showed up on the last day of tryouts, but the part just didn’t call for an all-American Opie Taylor type with cute freckles.
Bonnie Royster was an awesome director and later told me basically why I got the part. There was a full-sized set of steps on the stage and we were asked to stand at the top and slowly inch down the steps, staring her down as we did so and she said that she thought I actually scared her. Whatever.
I’m sure I was the lesser of what was a pretty darned distinguished cast. Alice Mooney, who was the drama teacher at Knox Junior High School, was one of the leads. She could have given Olivia de Havilland a run for her money.
Sarah Moss Pratt, the drama teacher at Salisbury High, played the other lead. Either of them could have probably been professional actresses.
Then there was my counterpart, Simone Grant, who did go on to be a professional actress in New York for many years.
(Simone Grant Timoney died Nov. 2, 2005, at age 44.)
Larry Shaw was recruited because someone suggested that he had just the right look for his part. Like a classic English actor plucked right out of the old movie “Wuthering Heights,” Shaw obliged and his presence on stage was very effective and despite having no lines. But as they say, details make the difference.The Piedmont Players plays had become so good that expectations ran high, and all of the directors that I ever knew seemed to go to great lengths to produce great shows. For “Hello Dolly,” there were stencils made and the words “Hello Dolly” were spray-painted on each corner of the downtown square to promote the play. For the picture on the cover of our program for the Innocents, no set would do, and Alma Brady graciously allowed us to shoot that photograph of Simone and me on her elegant winding staircase.
Props were real and often times valuable. If the script called for red hair and you didn’t have it, Betty Bunker fixed that problem real quick.
For “The Innocents,” Barbara Rackley donated her superb talent as a portrait artist as she sketched each of the four main characters for a promotional poster. A voice coach was found to help me acquire an English accent, but in my case, they settled for me just knowing the lines. I live in Wilmington now with my wife of 25 years, Leigh, who I met in the sixth grade at Wiley School in Salisbury.
Our son Skyler is 14 years old and attends Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. So with my family in tow, we saw the play last Friday night and loved it. We met the new cast and director and I showed them all the vintage program with Simone and me on the cover. I congratulated them all for a job well done, and giving the original cast such a good run for our money.
By Jeff Whitfield