It’s a true story that goes back to the 1830s and has been told through the generations: In what is now Mitchell County, an 18-year-old woman named Frances “Frankie” Silver was convicted of murdering her 19-year-old husband. The crime was brutal. Charlie Silver’s body was chopped with an ax, charred in the fireplace and scattered around the farmstead. There are three side-by-side gravestones for the man who was buried as the pieces of his body were found. Frankie was arrested and taken to Morganton, where she was tried for the crime, convicted, and was the first woman to be hanged for murder in North Carolina.
This harrowing tale is the basis for The Ballad of Frankie Silver, a new production at the Parkway Playhouse, onstage through Saturday, June 18. The company’s artistic director, Andrew Gall, is also the playwright, adapting the script from a book of the same title written by New York Times best-selling author Sharyn McCrumb, who spent four years researching the novel.
The deaths in this story are certain, but the situation leading to them is filled with controversy. Many question if Frankie was acting in self-defense and if her conviction was biased. “Looking at it from a 21st-century perspective,” says Gall, “the inequality with which she is treated from the standpoint of her gender, from the standpoint of where she comes from, and the sexism and the classism that factored into that, were things that really set my teeth on edge.”
Though Gall is personally opposed to capital punishment, his goal with the performance is not to cast blame. “I didn’t necessarily want to say if it was right or wrong, but I wanted [the audience] to really think about why this was happening. I really wanted them to think about what it would mean to tie some girl up at the end of a rope and then kick a bucket out from under her and watch her die for 15 minutes.”
The play, like the book, walks the audience through this nearly 2-century-old murder from the point of view of a contemporary sheriff. A parallel plot emerges between Frankie’s story and that of a murderer on death row who was apprehended by the sheriff. While it may have been technically easier to focus on the singular plot of Frankie, Gall didn’t want the play to be reduced to a docudrama. “I really had to look very hard to figure out how to juggle these two, really three, different plotlines,” he says. “We see characters in 1998 who are looking back on the 1830s, and on top of that, characters in 1998 are also looking back 20-something years on a murder that happened in 1978.”
Gall had previously worked with McCrumb on Parkway Playhouse’s adaptation of her book Ghost Riders, another regional Appalachian tale, and the two were in conversation about a new collaboration. Gall didn’t know of the Frankie Silver story and read McCrumb’s novel, which left him feeling unsettled by the story and the issues it brought up. “I really wanted other people to share that burden, as awful as it sounds,” he says. “I really feel like it was something we needed to talk about.”
McCrumb will participate in a series of events during the show’s opening weekend. At press time, the company is “precipitously close” to selling out its first weekend, says Gall. Advance ticket sales have already surpassed that of the just-completed production of Steel Magnolias, which the director considers popular and successful.
While Gall is proud of his work on productions such as Steel Magnolias, he notes that many of the shows like that one can be seen anywhere. But a play such as The Ballad of Frankie Silver is hyperlocal. “I’m sitting in the theater right now. I can get in the car, and I can be where all of that happened in about 15-minutes,” says Gall. “For some people, it’s still a very personal story because it involves their heritage — it involves their families, it involves people they might know.”
It’s a story that is a part of the community’s history and is still the subject of speculation. It looks at the possible disparities between justice and truth. It looks at issues such as the rural/urban division in North Carolina, a point that remains relevant. “I get really interested in the stories that can only really be told by us,” says Gall. “I think people are hungry for those kinds of stories. So I think it’s important to keep telling them.”
WHAT: The Ballad of Frankie Silver
WHERE: Parkway Playhouse, 202 Green Mountain Drive, Burnsville, parkwayplayhouse.com
WHEN: Through Saturday, June 18. Saturdays, June 4, 11 and 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, June 5 and 12, at 3 p.m.; Fridays, June 10 and 17, at 7:30 p.m. $20 adults/$10 children