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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Gray Matters: An engaging afternoon

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

On a recent Saturday afternoon I took one of the van trips offered for residents here. It was the first I'd been able to take--a short one to the Amana Colonies where we were privileged to see a stage presentation of "Spoon River Anthology" at the Iowa Theatre Artists Company.

Edgar Lee Masters wrote that stunning poem in 1915. Perhaps you recall it from a long-ago high school literature class. It is composed of some 240 short free-form poems, each an epitaph for a deceased resident of mythical Spoon River, Illinois. Now buried "on the hill," they take turns telling their stories. Stripped of any reason to lie, or to fear the consequences, they tell an honest story of their town. It is said that Masters based many of his characters on actual people he knew of while growing up in the villages of Petersburg and Lewistown. Most notable, is Ann Rutledge, legendary first-love of Abraham Lincoln, whose grave is found in Petersburg.

Selections from the poem were transformed into a successful stage production many years later. The effect is much the same as that of the Cemetery Walk held each autumn there in Cherokee County. In fact, I wonder if Spoon River might not have been the inspiration for the eastern Iowa event on which ours was modeled.

Nine professional actors, members of the Iowa Theater Arts Company, read the roles of 58 citizens, ranging from the town drunk to the revered judge, from a farm wife who seldom got even as far as the village, to a woman who had been an actress in Europe, was even married to an Italian nobleman before returning to be buried "on the hill." These fine individual portrayals were accompanied with songs and music by a folk group composed of some of the actors.

Following the stage presentation we were invited to join in a wine-tasting in the basement of the theater. Here, several wines, all featuring Iowa-grown grapes, were presented by a very knowledgeable brew master. It was a very pleasant way to conclude the afternoon.

Now I have a question. I distinctly remember having seen a stage presentation of "Spoon River Anthology" in our area sometime in the early 60's. I thought it had to have been a college or professional work as it made such a deep and lasting impression on me. However, others tell me they are just as certain that it was done by a high school group at Marcus under the direction of Mrs.Van Lent, a great English and speech teacher of that era. If any of you can solve this mystery, please help me out. Personal recollections or even programs or scripts would be real clinchers!

The versatility of Spoon River presentations is unique as each cast is free to select whichever epitaphs they choose. The Amana group emphasized some more humorous aspects, while the one I recall from long ago tended to be more touchingly poignant.