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Reviving History: ‘The Hermit of Fort Fisher’ succeeds at celebrating Wilmington’s past

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David Wright’s biographical play, “The Hermit of Fort Fisher,” opened at Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse to a sold-out audience. That alone should indicate the enduring impact that Robert Harrill, known to millions of people and the U.S. Post Office as “The Fort Fisher Hermit,” had on our area.


HERMIT ONSTAGE: Eben French Mastin portrays the Hermit in Big Dawg’s local play debut. Courtesy of Big Dawg.

Wright chooses to let Harrell’s own words (and he was a prolific writer) guide the script. In 1952 Harrill (Eben French Mastin) arrived at Fort Fisher where an abandoned WWII bunker would become the focal point of his homestead. His primary company comes from Empie (Hal Cosec), an apparently mute character of dubious origin, and Frank Peeler (Charles Calhoun II), a sheriff’s deputy based upon the real-life Fred Pickler, co-author of the “Life and Times of the Fort Fisher Hermit: Through the Lens of Fred Pickler.” 

Wright’s script explores Harrill through the eyes and narration of his son, Edward Harrill (Richard Davis). It is through Davis that the audience meets two very disappointed men. The hermit has failed as a husband, a father and a provider. Edward has failed as a son. 

The production poses questions like: What brought Harrill to this tiny sliver of land by the sea? Was it his inability to hold a job? Was it his failed marriage to the woman he loved, Katie Harrill (Rhoda Jane Gary)?  Or was it his almost obsessive fascination with the writings and teachings of Dr. Taylor (Langley McArol), a snake-oil salesman of the highest order? 

McArol’s time onstage with Mastin is the only time he actually submits to someone else’s will and opinions. Usually, he is rigid with determination. His jaw either is lifted in defiance, or his head is lowered like a bull preparing to charge. The erudite McArol makes Mastin dance on a string. What is most intriguing (or most infuriating) is that it’s indiscernible whether McArol believed the information he told Harrill. He clearly liked Harrill’s money, but was their relationship a very successful con, or did he truly hold these opinions? The contrast is intensified by the transparency of the other characters: Harrill wants to be left to live his life in peace; Katie wants stability and a partner in life; Peeler wants a friend; the visitors want pictures and memories; the harassing hoodlums want his money; and Empie wants friendship and safety. 

Cosec’s performance as Empie is a standout. It is much harder to be onstage without the ability to speak than many people realize,  but he maintains his physicality of twitches and spasms of communication throughout, which earns the audience’s empathy. He intrigues as an interesting foil for Harrill, who is his only voice. Harrill, who finally found his own voice when he came to Fort Fisher, now can speak for another who is incapable.  

Masitn only can be described as a theatre veteran: His résumé is too long to begin to list here. This leading role may be the capstone of his career. His struggles, frustration, determination, and simple joy for life are all palpable emotions he surfs for two hours. It’s daunting to bring someone to life who is so loved and well-known locally, despite being dead since 1972. With great candor and humanity, Mastin revives him as a real person, not a simple one-dimensional object of curiosity. 

Mastin is not the only one portraying an historical figure onstage: Charles Calhoun II makes his stage debut by playing Fred Pickle (whose real-life incarnation was in the audience on opening night). Calhoun proves an excellent choice for the role. He captures the charming bonhomie and  frustrated determination that the part needs. 

Davis is a familiar face to Wilmington theatre-goers both onstage and off as a producer of Guerilla Theatre Company at Browncoat Pub and Theatre. Many have seen him in Shakespearean roles and in comedic roles, but the complicated and frustrating relationship with Mastin depicted in this script requires Davis to delve deep to discuss the strained relationship with his onstage father, the Hermit. He also must interact with his father in that maddening way men have of not discussing touchy-feely things. It creates a tight balance that he and Mastin pull off admirably. 

I have spent the summer visiting every outdoor drama in NC, and Big Dawg hopes to move this show to an outdoor production at the Fort Fisher Hermit’s bunker. What would make this particular show different from most others in the state is that it deals with recent history. The outdoor dramas seek to preform a community’s collective history and identity. For “The Lost Colony,” no one living in modern day Roanoke Island has ever met any of the characters portrayed. To  retell “The Hermit of Fort Fisher,” a fresh story with living ties, will offer a powerful opportunity to examine the issues about our beaches: ownership, access, development, and vagrancy. Likewise, it will correlate with larger societal issues, such as whether appearances of expectations are more important. Is happiness and fulfilment the basic component of humanity?  

Several of the outdoor dramas in our state deal with issues of independence and revolution. “The Fort Fisher Hermit” asks the same questions, but instead of using government and impending war as a catalyst, it asks its characters personally. Harrill would be very pleased to know that we are still discussing those questions more than 40 years after his death.

Audrey McCrummen’s set design, which includes a detailed painting by Connie McCrummen, thrives in the stage’s confined space. The sand dune on stage righ offers nice depth and texture, and so does the glittery sand that sparkles in the black light, which is at the heart of Harrill’s love for his home: It is where things come together and have real substance in life. 

In many ways, “The Hermit of Fort Fisher” stands as microcosmic look at what brings a lot of people to our area: the beach and our community. Through these things, visitors find peace and time to reflect and grow. 


The Hermit of Fort Fisher

Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
Thurs.-Sun., Sept. 11th-21st, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$20

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