Big Dawg Productions endured a hit last summer with the original play by David Wright, “The Hermit of Fort Fisher.” In fact, they sold out all of their Wilmington shows at Cape Fear Playhouse, and relaunched it with Brunswick Little Theater in Southport to more sold-out praise a few months later. It’s coming to Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on July 29 through August 2 as well.
The story follows Fort Fisher’s infamous hermit, Robert Harrill. Harrill abandoned the conventions of family-and-working life when he moved from Morganton, NC—after being committed to a mental institution by his in-laws upon his wife requesting a divorce—to the southeastern NC coast. In 1955, at the age of 62, he secluded himself in a bunker in the dunes of Fort Fisher. He was arrested for vagrancy and sent back to his hometown of Shelby. Yet, Harrill ended up back in Fort Fisher a year later. He never worked again—after undergoing a string of dead-end jobs—and basically lived off the land, including fishing and gathering oysters from the local waters. His notoriety became quite the tourist attraction, and Harrill often signed autographs for visitors with whom he interacted. He mysteriously died in 1972; yet, his legacy lives on through the founding of The Fort Fisher Hermit Society and Friends of the Fort Fisher Hermit, as well as local areas named after him, including the Fort Fisher Hermit Trail.
Numerous folks have helped carry on his story, too, including Rob Hill who filmed the documentary, “The Fort Fisher Hermit: The Life and Death of Robert E. Harrill,” in 2004. Even one of the hermit’s friends, Fred Pickler, wrote “Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit, Through the Lens of Fred Pickler.” Pickler has become a key character in Wright’s play, which follows the life of the hermit into seclusion, and its aftereffects on him and his family. It’s told through letters that Harrill wrote throughout his lifetime.
“I think this show resonates with audiences so much because people have always been fascinated by the history (or legend) of the hermit,” director Steve Vernon says. Known to be charming and engaging, Harrill tends to symbolize much of what the humans idolize: pure freedom. Vernon praises the script.
“It is partly a history of one man and his effect on his environment (and vice versa), and partly a larger allegory regarding a person’s place in society,” Vernon tells. “It doesn’t hurt that there is a great mix of drama and humor in the story.”
This will be the first time the play is set outdoors, which is something both Vernon and Wright have wanted to see happen. Mainly, since the hermit lived outside for the latter part of his life, it makes sense per the show’s main setting. “The play is at Fort Fisher,” Vernon says. “Robert Harrill built an entire life out of being out-of-doors.”
The cast from 2014 will reprise their roles. Playing Harrill will be Eben French Mastin, who was lauded by critics last year in local media reviews. Filling out the cast is Hal Cosec as Empie; Rhoda Gary as the hermit’s wife, Katie; Richard Davis as Edward, the hermit’s son; and Charles Calhoun as sheriff deputy Frank Peeler (based on Fred Pickler).
“The actors have all committed so much energy to bringing these characters to life,” Vernon details. “It has been important to everyone involved to play these roles as if they were actual people (many of them were—and still are!), instead of just the creation of the playwright. They have all worked very hard to make the experience as immersive as possible for the audience.”
Changes have been made to reblock the show to fit the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. Vernon and the cast are grateful that most of the hard work has been done already. Though the show is only slated for a four-weekend run, the director has larger long-term goals in mind.
“[David and I] have discussed how much we’d like to see this play become a long-running show, reoccurring each year,” he tells. “I firmly believe that this play can become a permanent fixture in our cultural landscape.”
Per casting changes, should the show continue annually, well, Vernon’s already considered that as well. “As far as I’m concerned, the actors can keep coming back until they don’t want to—or grow out of their roles (we do have some young’ns in the cast),” Vernon touts. “Realistically, we would have to recast the roles from time to time. I’d love to see one of our younger actors playing an older role in the show 20 years from now.”
Though nothing’s been set in stone—as the amphitheater already hosts numerous concerts every summer, as well as Shakespeare on the Green every June—Vernon’s testing the water to see what awaits the play’s full potential. “It’s a fantastic venue,” he solidifies. “We will have to see how this production goes before we cement any long-term plans, but if at all possible, we’d love to be able to continue bringing this experience to audiences at the amphitheater.”
The show opens next week with the help of Big Dawg’s new technical director, Dallas Lafon (light/set design). The show runs for five days only.