Two local theater companies announce in-person shows, directors dish on curating performances post-Covid

Annie Marsh will reprise her role as Patsy Cline in Opera House’s musical revue, “Always … Patsy Cline.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

WILMINGTON — For months Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director, Steve Vernon, has been preparing the local theater company’s return to the stage since Covid-19 shuttered its Cape Fear Playhouse home in March 2020. Though Big Dawg did three radio dramas throughout the pandemic, “The Lifespan of a Fact” will be the company’s first in-person show in more than a year.

“I began looking at plays that were possible ‘openers’ for a return to the stage,” Vernon wrote to Port City Daily, “something that could be done with a small cast that reflected the uncertainty and anxiety of the past year, and yet still be entertaining and even comedic, and that framed larger issues into more digestible stories.”

“The Lifespan of a Fact” is written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, based on the true-story essay, “What Happens There,” by John D’Agata (D’Agata also wrote a book, “The Lifespan of Fact,” with Jim Fingal). The story follows a fact-checker who is employed by one of the best magazines countrywide. Yet, the entity faces peril, and a story about a teenager’s suicide could be its saving grace. After being assigned the story, a fact-checker finds out the writer, though gifted with the craft of forming “literary beauty,” has falsified a lot of the information.


“I was fascinated by the debate over the importance of facts versus truths,” Vernon described, “and how that debate has no easy conclusion. We have evolved into a society that sometimes values one over the other, but not always on a consistent basis.”

Vernon said the show covers how characters deal with emotional truths, hard facts and scientific data — and how it informs and punctuates their thinking. More so, it touches on the parallels of modern-day social constructs that keep some people anchored to doubtful attitudes against reality.

“Regardless of how much data or research we have on a subject, we still tend to rely on emotion and gut-feelings when making decisions,” Vernon noted. “We certainly saw that play out over the last year.”

“The Lifespan of Fact” stars local performers Randy Davis, Matt Carter and Eleanor Stafford; Vernon will direct. Choosing a play that features a small cast was of utmost importance, according to the director — a residual effect of Covid-19 that keeps him acutely aware of the changing dynamics in space and personal distance while on a stage.

It was one of Justin Smith’s considerations as well while planning Opera House Theatre Company’s summer schedule. Deciding to launch mostly musical revues in June and July was a move made out of convenience and necessity, he said. Smith found success and appeal in revues he launched outdoors last fall and spring, and most featured no more than six actors at a time.

“We are usually a constantly moving machine with dozens of interchangeable parts,” Smith said, “and that stopped for over a year and we were down to just a few people making it happen on a very part-time basis. I can’t imagine trying to mount a normal summer season with 11 weeks of theater right now. It’s just going to take some time to get the ‘machine’ rolling again.”

Smith decided continuing with revues would be an easy, turnkey operation, so to speak — featuring shows he “could plug and go,” he explained. The company’s summer season will reprise its 2019 performance of “Always, Patsy Cline,” once again starring Annie Marsh, who will sing through Cline’s country hits. The performance is narrated by waitress and mega fan, Louise Seger, who relives for the audience her one-night interaction with the Opry queen. Louise will be played by Wilmington actress Morganna Bridgers.

“We still have costumes and wigs [from the last run,]” Smith said, “and of course Annie became available to do it in June. Not to mention, it was a big hit so we are hoping people will be excited to see it again.”

Big Dawg will launch its first show in more than a year on June 10 at Thalian Hall Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater. (Port City Daily/Courtesy photo)

Opera House also will bring back “Legends Live On,” starring Broadway performers singing through hits from the Beatles to Bruno Mars. Smith mounted the production in March at Thalian Hall portico and Blockade Runner, featuring Broadway talent, including former Wilmingtonian Tracy Byrd (“Motown the Musical”).

Two new shows are coming to OHTC’s summer lineup, too, including “My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra.” It will feature four singers and actors from New York and Broadway, all covering Ol’ Blue Eyes’ catalog of music. “With so many working actors unemployed because of the Broadway shutdown, it was incredible the amount of folks with big résumés who were just itching to get out and do something,” Smith said.

The scope of local talent also will be on display in the original Southern play, “The Thursday Night Bridge Circle,” written by one of Opera House’s long-standing directors, Ray Kennedy. Penned throughout the pandemic, the play centers on a group of women in a 1970s Southern town as they unpack desegregation at their monthly Bridge club meeting. The play will be overseen by Canadian director Sarah Rogers and the cast will be announced soon, according to Smith.  

Normally, Opera House shows are performed on Thalian Hall’s main stage. While Covid still had the historic theater shuttered, Smith began utilizing the 1,500-seat Wilson Center venue when Governor Cooper’s Covid-19 mandates only allowed theaters to open at 30% capacity. Smith was able to launch a sold-out run of “Uptown at the Cotton Club” to an audience of 393 people last month.

“It was big enough for us to sell enough tickets to make the financial part and the possible Covid restrictions work,” Smith said. 

With the help of executive director Shane Fernando, Smith said he’s been able to carefully construct a small season to help the company return full-time in-person. “Shane has been amazing at helping promote our shows,” Smith said. “We both realize that it’s about getting people back and comfortable with live theater.”

Three shows will be staged at Wilson Center, while “The Thursday Night Bridge Club” will be at Front Street Theater (née City Stage) downtown. However, Smith assured Opera House will return to its home at Thalian Hall for its official 2022 season.

Big Dawg also won’t be launching “The Lifespan of Fact” on its home stage; Vernon said they need more time to deep-clean its Castle Street playhouse. Instead, the show will launch in Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre, which has proper infrastructure already in place for wiping down all surfaces and seats after each performance.

“It was a tough decision,” Vernon said, “because we feel like the Cape Fear Playhouse is our home, but it makes the most sense in terms of keeping our patrons and cast and crew safer, while allowing everyone to experience live theater again.”

Vernon said Big Dawg will be back in the Cape Fear Playhouse by fall. He is working out the schedule right now and will announce it hopefully in a month. He is sticking with a small-cast formula and finding stories that can engage and still bring levity to audiences.

“It’s a trickier-than-usual balance to achieve,” Vernon said about curating a season of theater coming out of Covid. “You can’t ignore the zeitgeist that has sprung from the events of the last 15 months. Nor can you dismiss the discussions that have been created due to the cultural upheaval that we’ve experienced.”

Vernon wants the impetus of Big Dawg’s 2021-22 to embrace communal gatherings of enjoying live art once again. “For all of the weightiness of this paradigm, [‘The Lifespan of Fact’] manages to keep you entertained and at times brings out genuine laughter,” Vernon assured.

The play runs June 10-13 and 17-20 at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $22-$25.

Opera House Theater Company’s summer season — tickets start at $23.75 — includes:

  • “Always … Patsy Cline” — June 11-13 (The Wilson Center)
  • “My Way” — June 25-27 (The Wilson Center)
  • “The Thursday Night Bridge Club” — July 8-11 and 15-18 (North Front Theater)
  • “Legends Live On” — July 9-11 (The Wilson Center)

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