In the small-town high school where I studied English literature many years ago, our teacher assigned us short, favorite passages from poetry and plays to memorize. It wasn’t hard for me –my good memory for words has always served me better than making numbers fit together—and the lines first penned by people like William Shakespeare are with me yet, as are some Bible passages.
This came back to me recently when I accompanied a group of senior adults on a trip to the American Shakespeare Center in historic Staunton. The group, which included several members of Windsor Hills United Methodist Church and some of their friends from other churches , was led by the Rev. Branan Thompson, the retirement-age minister to senior adults at the church not far from South Salem.
An ordained Southern Baptist from Georgia, Thompson served an ecumenically friendly congregation of that denomination for several decades before his retirement. Still active nearly 50 years after he came to the Roanoke Valley, he is today more theologically compatible with his adopted United Methodist friends than with the culturally conservative Southern Baptists of recent decades. I first met him, a racial integration liberal during the heated civil rights days, when he had been rejected by a traditionalist congregation elsewhere.
One of his several avocations is guiding the seniors on trips to nearby sites of religious or historic significance. A few such trips cover several days, but more are a day’s duration. The matinee for a play and including a stop at a popular spot for lunch and another for shopping for special foods and crafts offers great appeal to many of the –mostly women—who make up the travelers.
In the past decade I’ve taken a number of these day trips which are offered by nearby recreation departments in the Roanoke suburbs as well as by private touring companies. Only one, sponsored by Roanoke College to the Confederate Museum at Appomattox earlier this spring, has turned out to be taken in miserable weather.
The trip to experience Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet” came on a cool but pleasant day of clouds and sunshine. Twelve hours in duration, it included a heavy buffet lunch at the prestigious Boar’s Head Inn in the rich horse country near Charlottesville along with plenty of time to appreciate the blossoming Shenandoah Valley with its eternally lovely views of fields and mountains.
Before our tour, Thompson refreshed our memories on “Romeo and Juliet” by showing us several days earlier the classically beautiful film version directed by Italian Franco Zeffirelli and produced some 50 years ago. I own the soundtrack with narration where a haunting folk melody suggesting the sadness that often accompanies teen love enhances the mood.
The film helped prepare our party for the story, but the performance of the Staunton company’s version is distinctive. The American Shakespeare Center, near the small complex memorializing President Woodrow Wilson, was built early in this century. The staging of the play is simple with no scenery. Actors are dressed in costumes of the Elizabethan period in England. Music is by a noisy group performing something more rock than romantic. In fact, the whole production is rollicking and lively with the actors at times leaping from the simple stage and dashing down an aisle.
The playbill, which lists the other plays being performed this season at “Blackfriars”, states that the play will last for two hours. Compared to the film version, the speeches get a bit boring at times, but that’s part of the authenticity the playhouse folk strive for. Lights stay on and Shakespeare’s sometimes bawdy language is still there. Too, the cast is interracial.
And the young lovers –and many others in the cast—die in the end.