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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 05, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Outdoor Drama, Stuart Little, and Amnesia

I've lived in Greensboro for nearly 20 years, and in all that time I can't recall ever hearing about the Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre.

In fact, I can't recall ever hearing about Snow Camp.

But then I got a letter from close friends of mine from college, Jerry and Gail Argetsinger, who had spent ten summers directing, and even more years costuming, an outdoor pageant I wrote.

It turns out that Jerry was going to spend the summer directing the outdoor plays at Snow Camp, North Carolina.

Now, the obvious benefit of this was that when Gail and their sons came down to visit Jerry and see the shows, we got to keep them at our house and take them to dinner at Leblon and Green Valley Grill and have a wonderful time letting the families get acquainted.

But the completely unexpected benefit was that I got to go to Snow Camp for the first time in my life and see the exhibits and plays.

The whole establishment was built by Quakers, and the plays commemorate real events in the history of the Society of Friends in North Carolina.

Ouch. Did I say "history"? I guess I did. And that's both the draw and the barrier. It's a barrier, because outdoor historical dramas always have to walk a fine line between historical accuracy and entertainment, and many an outdoor drama is mind-numbingly dull because the script writer felt obliged to include events that weren't even interesting to the people who took part in them.

But at Snow Camp, the history is also the draw. Before the show, you can get a closeup look at many a tool and other artifact from the 1700s and 1800s. During the show, you get a vivid depiction of issues that people struggled and sometimes died for, and because you can trust that most of what you see actually happened, it becomes far more powerful than if some writer had come up with this stuff out of his head.

Which, by the way, is the reason why I was so dissatisfied with the movies Gladiator and The Patriot -- both films wanted us to care about the characters as if they had actually lived, but of course they were both ridiculous as history.

The two main plays at Snow Camp are surprisingly good, both as history and as drama.

"Pathway to Freedom" is the story of the Underground Railroad -- the system by which Abolitionists helped runaway slaves make it to freedom in the north. The drama is vivid, the acting is powerful, and the music -- authentic Negro spirituals as they are likely to have been sung at the time -- is haunting.

No one who knows Greensboro community theatre will be surprised to learn that Gwendolym Poole gives a delightful scene-stealing performance as a freedwoman who shelters runaways; other slave characters are movingly depicted by the fiery James Shields, a charmingly avuncular Carl H. Alston, and Gwendolyn Harrelson.

Local colleges also supply some wonderful performers. Keydron Dunn of UNC-G's theatre department has a marvelous voice, and Sheena Earl gives a moving performance as the runaway slave who would rather die than see her children grow up in slavery as she did.

R. Scott River brings a lazy insouciance to the testosterone-charged role of a legendary "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. Adam Shatarsky brings fervor and charisma to the role of the young slaveholder whose life is changed by the terrible things that happen during an expedition to capture some runaways.

The other main play, "The Sword of Peace," tells of the struggle of Quakers to live in peace during the era leading up to and including the American Revolution.

Now, I've always detested the movie Friendly Persuasion, because the message of the movie is that Quakers will -- and should -- give up their faith and fight as soon as their own families are threatened. I find this outrageous, precisely because the enduring strength of the Society of Friends has always been that they did not give up their faith, even in the face of death.

This play does not make that mistake. While some of them have their faith sorely tried -- General Greene himself, remember, was a lapsed Quaker -- the play shows the nobility of living up to one's faith, even when it is desperately hard.

There are outstanding performances from Rebecca Schaffer, as the non-Quaker woman who doesn't understand why the man she loves won't fight; Daniel D. Kurtz, as the real-life figure Simon Dixon; Maegan McNerney, as his longsuffering (and heroic in her own right) wife; and the exciting young actor Adam Davis as the young Quaker who desperately tries to find the right way to serve God and his country.

There are also many wonderful moments from actors I have not singled out by name in this review. And, amazingly enough, there isn't a microphone to be seen -- the actors actually make themselves heard, outdoors, with their own unaided voices.

If I have any complaint, it's that "Sword of Peace" has a truly unsatisfying ending. Not only does the author make almost nothing of the role that Quakers played in the battle of Guilford Courthouse -- men and women of the Society of Friends tended the wounded of both sides at great risk to themselves -- but also the play inexplicably ends with the death of Simon Dixon.

The writer didn't even tie his death to the fact that he caught his final illness from the infectious wounded soldiers he tended after the battle. Nor is there any hint that the writer was aware that America won the war -- and that Quakers rejoiced that the war finally ended. I mean, there could have been a rousing, happy ending no matter what your perspective, and instead we get an unexplained deathbed scene?

But this is no dumber than, say, the miserable second act of most Sondheim musicals -- and it doesn't take away from the strength of the rest of the script or the wonderful performances.

Going to Snow Camp is a bit of an expedition, and while the ticket prices aren't cheap -- $12 for adults, $5 for children -- you'll see an excellent show by outdoor theatre standards, and you get to drive through some of the most idyllic country in North Carolina. Besides, the refreshments during intermission are, by movie theater standards, almost cheap.

I had no clue where Snow Camp was, but finding it is easy enough. From downtown, get on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, turn left on Alamance Church Road (watch carefully for the overhead sign over the left lane; the sign over the right lane has a different street name), and keep going over hill and dale until you turn right on Greensboro-Chapel Hill Road. After a while you'll come to the Snow Camp turnoff (the signs most commonly say "Rand Old Opry"). Go past the restaurant and turn in to the theatre parking.

It takes about a half hour from when you get on Alamance Church Road.

The main plays are performed in rotation on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights through the end of August. On Wednesday nights there is a Hee-Haw-style comic revue called "Cane Creek Calamities."

*

Sequels are rarely as good as the original; Stuart Little II is better than the original, and the original wasn't bad. Michael J. Fox as the talking mouse who got adopted by a human family, Melanie Griffith as an "injured" bird, James Woods as an evil Faginesque falcon, and Nathan Lane as the lazy, longsuffering cat Snowball, all do a wonderful job with very funny lines. It helps that the animation is simply stunning. And if the live actors are given less to work with, they still manage to be charming.

Stuart Little II isn't trying to "push the envelope." In some ways, it's something of a return to the depictions of innocent family life that were once beloved in shows like "Leave It to Beaver" and "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best." I know we're all supposed to mock those shows as "unrealistic," but you know what? I know a lot more families that resemble those gentle comedies than I do families that resemble, say, the Bundys in "Married with Children" or the dork-and-harridan routine of "Roseanne."

Why is it that "realism" always means being dark, cruel, and cynical? Most people I know are bright, kind, and trustworthy -- I liked seeing them depicted in this genuinely funny and good-hearted film.

*

On the other hand, sometimes it's nice to get a good thriller, and despite its dependency on the hoary cliche of amnesia, The Bourne Identity is surprisingly effective. Matt Damon earns his stripes here as a genuine action star -- you can believe him being at once heroic and lost, surprised by his own abilities and appalled at who he finds out that he really is.

Smart screenwriting manages to hide the deep silliness of the Robert Ludlum plot, and Damon isn't the only good performer. Each of the opponents he has to fight does a splendid job of evoking interesting characters while having little opportunity to emote, while Franka Potente, a German actress making her debut in a big-budget American film, is absolutely revelatory. I want to watch her perform again and again.


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