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A true storyteller

April 08, 2009
It's not often that someone comes along who can give a voice to a segment of the population who has never been adapt at telling their own story or describing the things that are meaningful to them and often go unnoticed and are taken for granted.

Wendell Berry, a Kentucky native, can tell a story. An author of more than 40 books of fiction, poems and essays, Berry effortlessly captures small details of farming life, details that most rural people are aware of and value but seldom write about. His books can take a reader to the middle of a tobacco patch where the back-breaking, hard work of cutting tobacco can also bring enjoyment. The enjoyment of looking behind at the amount of work already done, the enjoyment of reaching the end of the row and the water jug sitting in the shade of a nearby tree, and the enjoyment of seeing what nature, with a little help from man, can produce and provide.

Berry can make you feel the sweat run down your back as you read about the hard work required to maintain a farming life. He can make you taste the food on the supper table. And he can make you see the sun come over the hill on a summer morning and the dew that has fallen during the night twinkling on the grass as the sun brings a new day.

Some of Berry's work has been brought to life in a new theater piece at Louisville's Actors Theatre called "Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry" that runs through April 26.

The presentation, adapted for stage by Marc Masterson and Adrien-Alice Hansel, is composed of 36 poems by Berry and involves four actors, two who play a young couple and two who play an older couple. Berry is not portrayed in the play. It is laid out in segments that reflect the seasons and focuses on Berry as a poet, farmer, philosopher, environmentalist and as someone who takes a critical look at industrialized farming.

Berry's poems are not rhymes but more like short stories or essays that reveal his thoughts and insights on the world around him. These are captured perfectly in the production of the play and are accented by an original score of music, written and directed by Malcolm Dalglish, that takes the audience on an emotional journey as the actors work through the poetry that includes observation, humor, wit and love.

The music, provided by the talented cast and Dalglish on-stage, includes a guitar, violin, hammered dulcimer and percussion instruments, and, although sparingly used, is a show within itself. The tunes are soft, alluring and punctuate the emotion portrayed by the actors.

It is obvious from the beginning that Berry has something important to say. Segments from the poems like, "love the world — love the Lord" and "what man has not encountered, he has not destroyed," gives the audience something to chew on and hash over on the way home after the show. In one scene, the actors portray farmers cutting tobacco with their tomahawks and spearing the stalks on wooden tobacco sticks, during which an older farmer chastises a young man who can't keep up because he was out late the night before. "That social life don't get you down that row, does it, boy?"

Other segments of the play have titles like "A Letter," "The Mad Farmer," "The Sycamore," "At a Country Funeral," "Wild Geese," "My Great Grandfather's Slaves," "The Sabbath 1991," "The Guest" and many others.

Berry lives on a Henry County, Ky., farm with his wife, Tanya, and farms with a team of horses alongside the Kentucky River. He was born in Henry County in 1934 and holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Kentucky. He has taught at Georgetown College, Stanford University, New York University and the University of Kentucky. He has won numerous awards for his work.

His first book, "Nathan Coulter," was written almost 50 years ago and was followed by what are now considered classics: "The Memory of Old Jack," "Jayber Crow," "Andy Catlett," "A Place on Earth," "The Life and Works of Harlan Hubbard" and many others. He has also written many books of poetry and essays, most on farming, rural life and the environment.

Actors in "Wild Blessings" include Helen-Jean Arthur, Malcolm Dalglish, Tracy Conyer Lee, Larry John Meyers and Phil Pickens. The show lasts less than 90 minutes and runs through without an intermission.

"Wild Blessings" is part of the 33rd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays and is also part of Actors Theatre's Brown-Foreman mainstage Series.

For more information, call 1-502-584-1205 or go to www.ActorsTheatre.org.

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