Big Dawg Productions has moved to the forefront of the cultural scene this year. No longer a mere player, the theatre company is much more a guidepost with consistent sold-out shows across various platforms. They just closed the production of “Maytle’s World” (a lyric memory play by and about our Poet Laureate, Shelby Stevens) at Cameron Art Museum, and they opened “Miss Firecracker Contest” last night at their home, Cape Fear Playhouse, off Castle Street. Now, they’ve jumped into the world of outdoor dramas with the revival of David Wright’s biopic play “The Hermit of Fort Fisher,” showing only through August 2 at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.
North Carolina is a leader among outdoor dramas. With the creation of “The Lost Colony” by Paul Green in Roanoke, our state has launched the longest running and greatest number of historical dramas in the U.S. Given the scope and breadth of our local theatre community, it is surprising that we do not have a historical outdoor drama to tell our stories of southeastern NC. Of all possible topics, “The Hermit of Fort Fisher” is a truly unique one that encapsulates a story of relationships and love, all taking place on Pleasure Island, just 10 miles south of Wilmington.
The show premiered in Burlington, NC in 2012, and Big Dawg brought it here last year to sell out two runs: one at the Cape Fear Playhouse and one in Brunswick County. Director Steve Vernon has reassembled the cast for the current revival. He moved it outdoors, which adds the missing element of the Hermit’s message to the piece.
Robert E. Harrill (Eben French Mastin), The Fort Fisher Hermit, homesteaded at Kure Beach in an abandoned World War II bunker from 1955 until his death in 1972. To become a hermit, he escaped involuntary commitment from a mental institution and abandoned his family. There he lived off the land, greeted visitors and became the second biggest tourist attraction in the area (right after the USS NC Battleship). In 1972 Harrill was found dead in his bunker. The mysterious circumstances surround his death have yet to be resolved, and it remains one of New Hanover County’s most famous unsolved murder cases.
The play is narrated by the Hermit’s son, Edward (Richard Davis). Edward is a logical choice as a narrator, as archival news footage and wire service interviews with him are still available. Davis and Mastin really capture the uneasy but loving relationship between father and son. Davis as Edward tries to understand his father—a man who doesn’t fulfill any of the ideals of fatherhood. More so, Davis portrays him with resentment, bound by constant disappointment.
Mastin showcases the Hermit as baffled and uncomfortable with his demons and his long-lost son. It is not an easy relationship to portray on such a big stage, as a 900-seat outdoor drama necessitates, but these two make it palpable. If you don’t tear up when they sing to each other at end of Act I, you are made of stone, because it is a heart-rendering, beautiful moment. The two men draw in the audience slowly, just as they approach each other with trepidation. They succumb to one of the most indelible relationships we have: that of parent and child. Everyone in the audience is with them in this moment.
The play features an ensemble cast and many players take on multiple roles. There are some stand-out performances. Shawn Sproatt takes turns as Dr. Taylor’s wife, a representative from the Traveler’s Adie Society, and as Harrill’s stepmother. As one gentleman said to Sproatt after the show, “You were the stepmother—you were terrifying!” He’s right; she is.
Teresa Lambe creates multiple tourists who visited with Harrill throughout the years, and she gives each of them definition and distinction, along with her assorted husbands, Paul Pittinger and Bob Workmon. Though Langley McArol’s creation of the shyster snake-oil seller, Dr. Taylor, will make your skin crawl, it’s not as intense as the young tugs who terrorize the Hermit (Josh Browner and Andrew Liguori). On the night I attended, they got booed at curtain call. It goes to show how folks really revered the Hermit.
Part of what makes a show like this particularly interesting is that its characters are real people. Unlike “The Lost Colony,” where the real-life counterparts are long dead, many people who knew Harrill are still alive. Charles Calhoun II, who plays Frank Peeler, based on the real life Fred Pickler, portrays a man who comes to see the show regularly. It must be intimidating, but he pulls it off with grace and good cheer, and shows us a deeply concerned friend of the Hermit who still hopes for justice.
Anyone who saw the show at Cape Fear Playhouse of in Brunswick County should come see it again at the lake; it is a completely different experience. The space at Big Dawg is incredibly intimate, but this is a bigger story. Just like the Hermit, who did not find himself until he got outside under our beautiful Carolina stars, the power of this story does not gel until it has the grandest stage: under the moon with a chorus of frogs and geese. When Harrill talks about going to catch dinner in the sound, the splash of aquatic life in Greenfield Lake perfectly complements the line. It is but one instance of how much this story is connected to nature and the outdoors. Outdoor dramas seek to tell stories that are intimately connected with a place. Few stories have ever been so entwined as that of our Hermit and nature.