SART returns to Owen Theatre with a festive musical

BLUEGRASS GOSPEL: The musical 'Sanders Family Christmas' takes center stage at the newly renovated Owen Theatre. The production begins Thursday, Dec. 14, and stars, from left, Brad Curtioff, Lee Wilson, Natalie Brouwer Wilson, Joshua Whitt, Jennifer O'Rear, Lyn Nihart, Pem Tomaseli and Jeff Messer. Photo by Ryan Phillips

Theater gets tricky when there isn’t a stage. For the last two years, that has been the reality for the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre. In 2015, when construction began on its home base — the Owen Theatre on the Mars Hill University campus — the show went on the road. Jim Brown, president of SART’s executive board, says it was a period spent “trying to stay afloat and still serve our communities with great professional theater while juggling the logistics of performing outside the comfort and well-oiled machine of our artistic home.”

But now that the work is complete, the troupe is back at its old stomping ground. Granted, the space doesn’t look quite the same as it did when the company left it. In addition to a refurbished main stage, the venue has added a new box office, along with The James “T” Thomas Black Box Theatre, a secondary performance space. Bathrooms are now on both floors, and the building is accessible to those with disabilities, as well. “This new space is what SART has needed for over 20 years,” says Brown. “It means we can finally host our patrons in facilities that match the high quality of our productions.”

The company will celebrate its homecoming with a staging of the musical Sanders Family Christmas. It is the second episode in Connie Ray and Alan Bailey’s bluegrass gospel trilogy, Smoke on the Mountain. The story takes place in Mount Pleasant on Christmas Eve 1941. America has just entered World War II, and among those readying to serve the country is Dennis Sanders. Accompanied by 25 Southern gospel Christmas songs, the production tells the story of Dennis’ sendoff. The show launches Thursday, Dec. 14, and runs through Saturday, Dec. 23.

The holiday musical arrives with considerable fanfare, says Brown. This past summer, SART held a fundraising campaign to help subsidize lost revenue as a result of its time away from Owen Theatre. During the event, Brown says, “we put signs up where people could write what they wanted to see SART produce in the future.” It turned out that most patrons shared a penchant for the Sanders family. “So we listened and are happy to be starting a Christmas tradition,” Brown says.

According to Joshua D. Whitt, who plays Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe in the production, it doesn’t matter if you’re new to the trilogy or not: Each story stands on its own. “The dialogue enforces the storyline of the … previous show, so a person will not be lost searching for a ‘why,’ ‘when’ or ‘how,’” he says. Plus, Whitt adds, the personalities on stage have recognizable traits. “Even though a theatergoer may not have grown up within the culture of bluegrass or gospel, the characters are rich and relatable because of our basic human condition.”

Despite World War II looming in the background, Whitt describes Sanders Family Christmas as a joyous production. This, too, is attributed to the lively cast that takes center stage. From the overly eager, goofball pastor to the overbearing mother capable of moments of genuine love, Whitt says, “the audience should leave filled with the holiday spirit … ready to go and celebrate with their own families.”

Like Brown, Whitt is also excited to show off the company’s new space. He says the return to Owen Theatre will be a special moment for him and the rest of the crew. “SART has been given a chance at a fresh start, and to be a part of that is something I don’t take lightly,” he says. “We all have a huge commitment to excellence and are aware that this is the beginning of the next 40 years of SART. … The holidays are full of wishes and gifts — being able to perform back at SART is the greatest gift to me this holiday season.”

WHAT: Sanders Family Christmas
WHERE: Owen Theatre, 44 College St., Mars Hill. sartplays.com
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, Dec. 14-23, at 7:30 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $20-$25

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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