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Award-winning actress takes on local play

The region — and more specifically local playwright Frank Levering and his Cherry Orchard Theater in Ararat, Virginia — may soon boast of a new connection with Academy Award-Winning Actress Holly Hunter.

That is because she and fellow actress Amy Madigan, of “Field of Dreams” fame, are looking to perform the work “The Distance Between Us,” a play Levering wrote.

“This is a play that is set in what’s now Carroll County…when it was Grayson County, 1842 I believe,” Levering said recently. “Three or four years ago I wrote this play called ‘The Distance Between Us’ and it debuted at The Hale-Wilkinson-Carter House … in Hillsville (Virginia). It’s a two-character play. A mother and a daughter. Shelby (Inscore-Puckett) played the mother in that first production and Rose Spencer played the daughter. We did it a couple of nights and we had a wonderful time. It was really well attended. They somehow managed to pack that place. That might have been about four years ago. You learn about what’s going on in Carroll and in the Quaker community in Ohio. Slavery becomes an issue in the play.”

Levering said the play’s story is told in letters being written between the two. The plot was suggested by his and Puckett’s initial research. Surprisingly, Levering found out up until about the year 1820, one-third of what is now Carroll County, a major portion of the population was Quakers.

He said the show was later performed at the Cherry Orchard Theater in Ararat, and then at a Quaker meeting in Davidson,. Pulitzer Prize-winning American Playwright/Screenwriter Beth Henley was in that audience.

“Beth loved the play so I said, ‘Why don’t we just do this at your house? Get two of your friends.’ She has all these actress friends…to do it. We did this one night about a year-and-a-half ago. A whole bunch of people came and packed Beth’s living room. Holly Hunter came and loved the play,” said Levering. “Now Holly is going to do this play. She will play the daughter. Amy Madigan of ‘Field of Dreams’ will play the mother. It’s going to be…at least starting out….as a virtual thing. This is coming up…probably in two or three weeks. I got an email from Holly the other day saying, ‘I love your play,’ so I’m so excited about doing this.”

More details about the virtual performance by the duo will be shared when plans are finalized.

“So…all of a sudden we have Holly Hunter with a Carroll County connection. Holly was raised a Baptist in a small town not too far from Atlanta, according to Beth, and is really interested in Quakerism through this play. The Quakers were one of the first religious denominations of any kind…to renounce slavery,” Levering said. “By 1785 if you were a Quaker in North America and owned slaves you would be kicked out of your meeting. They were the pioneers of the anti-slavery movement in the United States, then became one of the leading abolitionists in the country. Because the Quakers believe everyone is equal in the sight of God there was a phenomenal equality between men and women…going all the way back to 1640 when it originated in England.”

Levering said this tradition of women leaders and women’s equality carried over into the suffragette movement.

“I grew up Quaker in my family and we never knew a thing about it. Nobody in my family realized that there had been that many Quakers here way back. I also learned something that shocked me. The Town of Hillsville was named for…and I always assumed this…for the geographical reference. A town full of hills. The Town of Hillsville was created from land owned by a Quaker family named Hill. Who knew that? This was all from several sources. I was actually shocked. Then it came to my attention if you go to some of these really old graveyards around here there’s a lot of dead Quakers in them, including the one on the north end of Hillsville,” said Levering.

“Apparently what started happening around 1815 to 1820, the Quakers started leaving. They moved north, primarily to Ohio. One of the reasons they left was slavery. They were anti-slavery and they started feeling uncomfortable with a culture that was okay with slavery. I think the major reason was their children were marrying out of Quakerism. They were losing their children to the Baptists and other denominations. It was happening so often they wanted to move somewhere where they could essentially have a Quaker community where their kids would marry other Quakers.”

He said he thought a situation where the daughter is kicked out of the Quaker meeting in Carroll because she marries someone out of the faith would be interesting. Levering said historically this is exactly what happened across the nation.

“I’d heard about that before but I didn’t know much about it. It turned out that was happening often around the country. In the play the daughter remains in Carroll. She’s married a local boy and started raising a family. The mother and the father and the other siblings move to Ohio. The fact she’s essentially been disowned by the Quaker meeting and her parents weren’t able to do anything about that has created an estrangement between the mother and the daughter,” Levering said. “The mother when she gets to Ohio starts writing letters to the daughter that go unanswered. Eventually she starts answering the letters. The story of the play is told over the course of about 25 years as the mother become old and the daughter becomes middle aged. It’s a story of estrangement and reconciliation.”

David Broyles may be reached at 276-779-4013 or on Twitter@CarrollNewsDave

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