Walk To Freedom.: A tale of courage and love

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Melissa Gerth, in the starring role as Mary Draper Ingles, tries to protect George Ingles, played by Laken Thompson, and Tommy Ingles, portrayed by Amelia Arndt, during a Shawnee raid.

Steve Frey

There is something extraordinary about opening night for any play. The actors have worked hard to learn every line and nuance and are eager to perform. They are excited to feed off of the responses of a large, enthusiastic audience. Those were the exact feelings in the air last Sunday for “Walk To Freedom: The Mary Draper Ingles Story.”

In fact, those exact sentiments have been experienced by thousands of Radford audiences, actors and stage crews since 1971 with the initial telling of Mary’s story in “The Long Way Home.”

Yes, just like the magical feeling many experience at Christmas or on other special holidays, it’s Mary Draper Ingles Season in Radford.

The latest version of Ingles’ story was performed by an ensemble that left the audience with not just the narrative of her courageous journey back home from Shawnee captivity, but also some food for thought about the strength of a people, and in this case, a strong Appalachian woman, and what the human spirit can achieve in the most arduous of situations. Another dominant theme is the love of family and home; a love that can carry the day against anything when it is strong enough.

Melissa Gerth, who comes to Walk To Freedom with a variety of national and international theater and dance credits, plays the leading role of Mary with strength, determination, and a tangible sense of caring that she shares with all around her.

Reghan Cutler employs a convincing German accent and a whiny, nagging personality in creating a Mrs. Bingamin (the “Dutch” woman) that the audience loves to loathe.

Amy Rice captures Bettie Draper’s fears, emotional scars, depression and return, with Mary’s help, to finding a new life after experiencing unimaginable losses.

Jordan Wommack, who recently stole the show as the watchman in “Macbeth” at Radford University, plays two characters: Mary’s strong, loving husband William and the heavy drinking French trader and self-proclaimed bon vivant, Pierre La Valle.

Laken Thompson, who plays both George and Susanna Ingles, and Amelia Arndt, in her roles as Tommy Ingles and Mary’s own daughter, Mary, both express the joys of innocent youth as well as the fears of captivity and the unknown.

Landon Kime handles the role of colonial leader Colonel Patton with graciousness and gentility and that of Chief Cornstalk as a powerful visionary for peace among all people.

Brandon Duncan displays a visceral disdain for “The English” in duel roles as Lone Eagle and Blackfish, and Eli Ayers transitions effectively in dual roles as Lone Eagle and Adam Harmon.

Madison Hunwick assumes a quality Irish brogue as Eleanor Draper and describes well the uplifting experiences and hardships of an immigrant in a new land.

Writers Kathleen Harshberger and Wesley Young shift the audience from 1761 and Bettie’s return from many years of captivity to a recounting of Mary’s 1755 ordeal through the skillful guidance of director Emily Keck.

Of course, the behind the scenes work of Stage Manager Bekka Knost, Production Manager Carl Lefko, Costume Designer Randi Wiesjahn, Technical Production Manager Brian James, and Production Assistant Kyle Turpin can be seen in the imaginative stage presentation, the colonial-era costumes and accouterments, the excellent sound and special effects, and all the other creative ingredients that make for a complete immersion in the Virginia frontier for the audience.

If you missed opening night, there are additional performances on July 27, 28, and August 4.

The next show dates on July 27 and 28 take place on Mary Draper Ingles Remembrance Weekend when the Ingles farm, which is still a working farm in the Ingles’ family, will be opened for touring and interpretative offerings. You will also be able to see the Mary Draper Ingles Park and displays at the Glencoe Mansion, Museum and Gallery. The Wilderness Road Regional Museum in Newbern will have special programs with a unique one day exhibit called “Swords of Our Patriots,” bringing together the swords of Colonels William Ingles, William Preston and William Fleming.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for area events celebrating the Virginia legislature’s 2017 proclamation “designating the last Saturday in July…and in each succeeding year, as Mary Draper Ingles Remembrance Day in Virginia.”

Also, when you purchase your tickets at MaryDrapeInglesTrail.com for one of the three remaining performances, remember to come early and hear Jim Lloyd play the Blue Ridge Mountain Music of the colonial era and share a little of the history of the music and instruments of that period.

Yes, it is indeed Mary Draper Ingles Season in Radford, and Virginia’s River City embraces its most notable denizen during this acclaimed drama season and throughout the year. In addition, it welcomes visitors from all over Virginia and, in fact, the United States, to celebrate the story of this courageous woman and family who settled on the New River, the city’s coursing heartbeat.

Walk To Freedom is an inspiring story of courage and fortitude. But it is also a story about love, and not to give too much away, but at the end, you will leave with both a better understanding of the Ingles’ contributions to Westward Expansion through Radford and a fortified love of this New River Valley, which so many know simply, much as Mary did, as home.