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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Trail of the Lonesome Pine celebrates 52nd season

Joey O'Quinn (banjo), and Larry Mullins (guitar) play
Joey O'Quinn (banjo), and Larry Mullins (guitar) play"Sourwood Mountain" during the homecoming scene in the 2013 season. (photo by Ron Flanary)
Additional photos below »

By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | July 01, 2015

I came into your world- you went into mine. What I had grown indifferent about- you grew to care about. You grew sensitive while I was growing callous to certain — he was about to say surface things, but he checked himself-certain things in life that mean more to a woman than to a man. I would not have married you as you were- I've got to be honest now- at least I thought it necessary that you should be otherwise- and now you have gone beyond me, and now you do not want to marry me as I am. And it is all very natural and very just.
John (Jack) Hale to June Tolliver in "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" by John Fox Jr.

"Trail of the Lonesome Pine," which is celebrating its 52nd season in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, is in some ways historical and in some ways a retelling of a classic myth.

"The plot of the story is a "Pygmalion' type of story," says Barbara Polly who was instrumental in starting the "Trail" and served as president of Lonesome Pine Arts and Crafts from 1963 until this past January. "Mountain girl meets educated mining engineer; he takes her under his wing to send her to school and then on to New York. He remains in the mountains delving into the coal business with her father Devil Judd Tolliver. She becomes more sophisticated, while he becomes more like the mountains."

It also depicts the story of how lives were affected by the discovery of rich coal and iron ore deposits which forced the lusty, proud mountain people into making many drastic changes in their way of life. All of the main characters are based on real people, and some of the events are also historic such as the hanging of Red Fox Taylor (The Red Fox).

The homespun wit and humor of these folk are interwoven with stark tragedy, suspense, very often violence and their final acceptance of their inevitable destiny.

The play was chosen the official outdoor drama of Virginia in 1994 and is the longest running outdoor drama in Virginia and the fifth longest running in the United States. Last year, visitors from 37 states and six foreign countries attended the play. "I think it's very interesting that the State Theatre of Virginia (Barter) and the Official Outdoor Drama of Virginia ("Trail of the Lonesome Pine') are both in the southwestern part of the Commonwealth. We should be very proud of that," Polly says.

The play was first adapted from John Fox Jr.'s book by Dr. Earl Hobson Smith, an English and theater professor at Lincoln Memorial University. Over the years it has been updated or rewritten by other playwrights, but Smith did the original adaptation.

"We allow some artistic liberty each year for the artistic director, but the story must follow the storyline of the novel. So each time we have a new artistic director, we have a new play (to a point) so we encourage everyone to come every year to see what's new. Also different actors may interpret their roles in a different manner, so we always look forward to each new season," says Polly.

The cast numbers between 50 and 60 actors and musicians, who are all volunteers. The artistic director and technical director are the only paid staff. This year, it's a husband and wife team Kim Mays (artistic director) and Ben Mays (technical director). Ben is a member of the faculty at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, and Kim has professional experience with the Roadside Theatre Players, Barter Theatre and other venues.

Many actors return from year to year, but there are also new people as well. "Many have a special bond with the story as well as having pride in what they contribute to their community. We have an apprentice program for young people who want to learn the technical side of theater as well as on-stage performing," Polly says. "We have children from age 6 up in our show. We have several families as cast members mom, dad and their children are encouraged to become a part of the cast as a family. Sometimes the parents are on stage or participate as techies, souvenir shop workers, box office, etc. Their children get to participate, and parents are there to keep an eye on them."

The music is live, performed by a variety of talented musicians on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, etc. The organization is making a CD of music from the show featuring singers who have performed with the show throughout the years. "There is a square dance featured in the homecoming scene that is choreographed ... if a mountain square dance can be that structured," Polly says.

As one might expect with a play that has lasted this long, it has developed traditions of its own. Every Friday night before the show some group feeds the cast. "Sometimes it may be a local business, or a church group or one of the museums," Polly says. "It's tradition for the Gap Partnership to feed the cast on opening night. They are our community business organization, sort of like a chamber of commerce. The cast also performs for every fifth grader in Lee and Wise Counties in August for two morning presentations."

Weather is always a factor when doing an outdoor drama. "We find that mountain rain showers will appear lots of days around 5 p.m., and people begin to wonder if we will have a show or not. Most of the time the rain is gone by the time the show is ready to begin," Polly says. The theater offers rain checks that are good anytime in the future and rain insurance for a fee. Those who purchase rain insurance in advance can have a refund depending upon how much of the show has been performed. To receive a refund audience members must have rain insurance, but they can always get a rain check. The theater has a rain shelter that people can gather under if shows have to be delayed for a quick shower. "Many audience members have traveled a distance and want to see a full production if possible. We try to accommodate them if we can," she says.

"The longevity of the "Trail' is due to the fact that it is a good story, is entertaining, humorous, involves different components of lifelike situations and is suitable for all ages. The first performance was in August 1964. We had lawn chairs for our seating, an orchestra pit where the organist and music director were located. In the early days, all outdoor dramas used electronic organs for accompanying the singers. We had Larry Dalton as our organist who later became an official Steinway Artist, an ASCAP writer and music director for over 1,000 ofthe Oral Roberts TV programs. Many of our alumni went on to careers in theater, TV and movies. They became Nashville musicians and went into theatre and music education. Several went into the medical field, as well as the law. It seems several used their theatrical skills in the courtroom, or so I've been told.

"With the premiere of the movie "Big Stone Gap' on the horizon in the fall, we feel that our town and the drama will become more popular. Our amphitheater is featured in the movie, so we hope that people will be curious enough about us to give us a visit," Polly says.

Performances are held Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings in July and August. The 2015 season runs from June 26 through Aug. 29. The amphitheater is located in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. The box office opens at 7 p.m. Pre-show entertainment begins at 7:15 p.m.; the production begins at 8 p.m. Admission is $18 for adults; $15 for seniors (55 +); and $10 for children ages 6 through 12. Group prices are available. Information is available by calling 800-362-0149, 276-523-1235, emailing or visiting

>> Jack McClanahan involved with Trail since beginning

Topics: Theatre