'Trail of the Lonesome Pine' becomes a family affair for Wardells

Mike Still • May 26, 2019 at 12:00 PM

BIG STONE GAP — As the new producer of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” Jim Wardell is no stranger to what it takes to put on Virginia’s official outdoor drama.

As the drama heads toward opening night for its 56th summer, Wardell is finding his new position a family affair. Son Ryan will be the play’s director, and wife Sandy returns as the ‘Trail’ theater’s house manager.

Jim and Sandy Wardell met about three years ago when he volunteered to work in the box office and do other tasks in support of the play, and they married last year.

“I blame the ‘Trail’ for making my life so much better,” Jim said.

“He came home one day and said that he had some news he wanted to talk with me about,” Sandy said. “When he said he’d been asked to produce the ‘Trail’ this year and wanted to know how I felt about it, I told him to do it.”

Besides making sure tickets were sold, guests ushered and refreshments and souvenirs sold, Sandy said she watched her daughters and son perform roles too before they grew up.

“I raised my children here, and I never had to worry where they were or what they were doing. It’s something I never would give up.”

After a previous organization finished the 2018 season production, Jim said that Lonesome Pine Arts and Crafts — the organization that oversees the play — asked him to produce the drama and become the general manager for the theater. LPAC also agreed to bring Ryan onboard as the director.

“The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” based on the 1908 novel by John Fox Jr., had already been made into a stage play several times and into a film four times by 1936 before being adapted as the current outdoor production.

Jim spends free time after his day job as director of UVa-Wise’s Center for Teaching Excellence overseeing preparations for the show’s June 28 opening. On Tuesday, he and Sandy were working with an electrician to ensure lighting and sound equipment were in working condition.

Ryan, who teaches voice at UVa-Wise, is finishing a performance commitment with the Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble before returning to Wise County to tackle direction and rehearsals.

“We have three goals this season,” Jim said. “We’re reconstituting the company so we’ll have a production this year. We want to develop a comprehensive plan for the play, and we want to restructure the organization so it outlasts any one person.”

He credited Barbara Polly for her work in founding the outdoor drama and being at its helm for most of its first 53 years.

“The ‘Trail’ has had 55 successful seasons, and we’re going back through that time and finding all those things that have gone right and made it a success,” Jim said.

Part of that success has been the music within the production, and Jim said the core group of banjo, guitar, autoharp and bass will remain part of what audiences see and hear on stage.

“My favorite aspect is that the musicians are part of the play,” he said. “The character Old Dave plays a guitar, and we’ve taken to calling our musicians Old Dave and the Pickers.”

Audiences this season also will get to hear musicians perform before the curtain opens each evening, Jim said, and additional musicians will be incorporated into the play.

New sets and costumes will add to this season’s production, and Jim noted the script will be tightened to run between 90 and 100 minutes.

“We want to tell the story and tell it well within the limitations of an outdoor theater,” he added.

Casting for most roles is complete, but there are some spots open for volunteers to play townspeople, Jim said. For folks wanting to be involved in the “Trail” but who might be stage shy, the production still needs parking attendants, ushers and people “to do the hundred other things that need doing,” he added.

Jim said the drama’s website — www.trailofthelonesomepine.com — has a new look, and visitors can see cast members and background on the drama. Tickets go on sale May 29 and can be purchased through the website.

The 56th season runs from June 28 to Aug. 24 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. There will be no performance on July 4. The theater is located on Clinton Avenue, and directions are on the drama’s website.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors (55 and over) and $10 for children 6-12 and military. All Thursday performance tickets are $8.