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Amish Acres stages 'Old Rugged Cross'

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Jeremy Littlejohn, left, Rachel Stargel and Kate Salsbury star in Amish Acres' production of "The Old Rugged Cross" that continues through May 29 at the Round Barn Theatre. (Photo provided / April 19, 2011)

By HOWARD DUKES
South Bend Tribune Staff Writer


The production of the musical "The Old Rugged Cross" gives the Round Barn Theatre a rare opportunity.

The play, written by Round Barn alum Dennis McKeen, continues through May 29 in its first extensive run at the Round Barn.

"The Old Rugged Cross" has been performed only one other time. McKeen wrote and performed the play at Cornwell's Dinner Theatre in Marshall, Mich., where he serves as artistic director.

"It provides us with an opportunity to develop the show," producer Richard Pletcher says.

Travis Smith, who plays Pastor Jim, is taking advantage of the opportunity.

The play tells the story of Old Rugged Cross Park, which is located in front of a country church. People looking for answers to prayers or seeking comfort come to the tranquil site. Pastor Jim is the person who helps the seekers. The first part of the play is set in the park. The second act takes place inside the church.

Smith, who also serves as the play's musical director, originated the part of Pastor Jim.

"I think that he is patient, and he is a friendly person," Smith says. "He's not quick to judge or be preachy about what he has to say. He asks questions to guide people to what they need to figure out."

Because Smith is the first person to play Pastor Jim, he is the person who had to research the part.

Did Smith recall conversations that he had with a minister or study video of depictions of clergy in film?

“I didn’t really do that,” he says. “I just played him like I would do if I were in his position.”

The play takes its name from the classic gospel song and features tunes that have become Christian standards over the years.

David Craven, director of the play, says that even though the play is new, audience members will see and hear a lot of things that will ring familiar.

People in the crowd will definitely know songs such as “Amazing Grace,” “There Is Power in the Blood” and “Old Time Religion.”

The characters who audience members will meet in this musical comedy will be familiar as well, Craven says.

“There are characters in this play who will remind people of friends and relatives,” he says.

There is another reason why the play will have a nostalgic feel, Craven says.

McKeen, the playwright, was cast as Papa Yoder when the play “Plain and Fancy” was first performed at the Round Barn Theatre 25 years ago.

At that time, the production was simpler, Pletcher says. McKeen was an up-and-coming thespian who played two roles, Pletcher says.

“It’s good to see him grow into a successful actor, producer and director,” he says.

McKeen’s success also shows how the Round Barn has progressed.

“We are now a regional theater with enough talent that we can produce an original work,” Pletcher says. “And doing this play is a good way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ‘Plain and Fancy.’ ”

Staff writer Howard Dukes

Onstage

The Round Barn Theatre presents Dennis McKeen’s “The Old Rugged Cross” at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday and Thursdays and Saturdays through May 28; 8 p.m. Fridays and Wednesdays through May 27; and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 29 at Amish Acres, 1600 W. Market St., Nappanee. The 8 p.m. May 7 and 2 p.m. May 8 performances are TBA for what production will be performed, and the May 20 and 27 performances include the option of a theme dinner for an additional cost in Amish Acres’ restaurant. For ticket prices, call 800-800-4942 or visit AmishAcres.com.