For the past ten years, the pioneers of Jacksonville have been brought back to life each October, through dramatic “Meet the Pioneers” reenactment performances in the Jacksonville Cemetery. The grassroots community event has grown each year, with hundreds of visitors trekking up the hill above the gold rush town in small groups to enjoy historical presentations about the saloon days, Peter Britt, privates and generals, railroads—and, of course, life, love, and death.
This fall, however, the producers of that event are taking a break—but that doesn’t mean cemetery enthusiasts will have to go without their annual “funereal fix.” For this year, the Friends of Jacksonville Historic Cemetery (FOJHC) are teaming up with the Madrone Theatre Company, a newly-created theatrical troupe, to present a unique adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ cemetery-inspired Spoon River Anthology. The performances will be held Oct.7-9, 14-16 and 21-23 at Rogue Community College Performance Hall, 130 E. 8th St., Medford. Evening performances will be offered at 7:30pm Friday and Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2:00pm.
Life and death in a rural town—Just over a century ago, Edgar Lee Masters published his poetic rendering of small town life—and death—in Spoon River Anthology. In this fall’s production, the poignant characters based on Masters’ upbringing in rural Illinois will come back to life in a staging by the Madrone Theatre Company, many of whom have their own rural connections—in Southern Oregon. Spoon River is a fictitious early 20th Century Midwestern village, and its namesake anthology is comprised of more than two hundred short free-verse poems—basically epitaphs of the residents buried in the town’s cemetery. Upon its publication in 1915, the volume drew national acclaim for Masters, but also created a scandal in Lewistown and Petersburg, the rural Illinois towns where he spent his formative years.
Many residents recognized themselves in the thinly- veiled work of fiction, and some of the accounts were less than flattering. As one literary observer noted, “With the publication of Spoon River Anthology, Masters exploded the powerful myth that small-town America was a social utopia. Here for the first time was a community that people recognized in its wholeness and complexity.”
The Madrone Theatre Company production is an adaptation by Ron Danko, who also directs and acts in the play. This Spoon River is based on Masters’ original 1915 edition and also a 1924 edition known as The New Spoon River. (It is unrelated to a popular Broadway play based on the anthology.)
The ensemble consists of six local actors and one musician, most of whom have strong ties to Jacksonville or other rural settings in Southern Oregon. Danko and three of the actors—Constance Jesser, Jois Harkness and Lea Worcester—hail from Jacksonville. Other actors include Rob Hirschboeck of Ashland and David Sours of Talent. Compiling folk music and early American songs to accompany the production is David Gordon, a retired opera singer and music historian who recently relocated to Jacksonville, and who has won local acclaim for his performances of American folk songs inspired by early life in Jacksonville and its environs.
“Spoon River is about love, betrayal, politics, hope, and failure,” says Danko, who has directed, adapted and performed in three previous versions of the Masters classic. “We have slimmed down the anthology to just 51 characters, presented briskly, who we feel will resonate with our audiences even after a century.” Characters include a respected doctor, convicted of swindling; a judge, bent on revenge against those who mocked him in his youth; a mother seeking an act of pardon from President Lincoln; a telephone operator sharing the secrets she has learned while eavesdropping; and a young soldier, devoted to a girl and questioning a war.
“It’s a great cast, and they are very effective at bringing Spoon River to life,” says Danko, adding that “People who came to Jacksonville for the “Meet the Pioneers” programs in the cemetery will definitely relate to these wonderful characters, whom Masters creates in only a few words.” Danko also notes that proceeds from the production will be donated to FOJHC.
Dirk Siedlecki, the president of the FOJHC Board of Directors and who, with his wife Mary, helped produce the pioneer events in the cemetery for the past ten years, expressed great enthusiasm for this joint venture with Madrone Theatre Company.
“This is a great opportunity for the cemetery association, as well as the community, to continue the tradition of celebrating the history and traditions of Southern Oregon and rural America,” he said. “Spoon River Anthology is a wonderful work of literature, but it will be especially wonderful to see it staged this fall.”
Also making this event possible is Rogue Community College, which is donating space for the performances. In addition to Danko and Sours, who are instructors at the college, Wayd Drake, another RCC instructor, will be designing lights for the production.
Photo: The Madrone Theatre Company – from left, in the back row, are Ron Danko, Constance Jesser, David Sours (with fiddle), Rob Hirschboeck, and Lea Worcester. Seated are David Gordon and Jois Harkness. Photo © by David Gibb Photography, www.dgibbphoto.com.
UPDATE: Ticket prices are $20 for Adults and $12 for Students and can be reserved and purchased by going to www.friendsjvillecemetery.org Spoon River Anthology – Fund Raiser. A group rate for ten or more people attending the same performance is also available. More information and reservations are available by calling 541 826-9939.