Review: The Heart of the Forest by Kevin Smith

Hinton is a rare place. For those in the know, a range of joys that encompasses railroad history, a gorgeous restored theater, quaint shops, stellar hot dogs, and a thriving arts community. Hinton can be a hard town to reach, from any direction, but the reaching is worthwhile.

For almost a decade now, Ars Creo has made quite an art of reaching their hometown, and they almost make it look easy, though as I can attest, hours of sweat and dedication have gone into all of their musical productions. Ars Creo is a troupe of individuals who spend a couple months out of their year working toward a performance at the Summers County Memorial building in downtown Hinton. The shows are always free, but invaluable to the community. Full disclosure: I consider many members friends and even family, but I feel certain I would feel no less transported to my childhood (when suspension of disbelief was astonishingly easy) if they were all strangers to me. I’m sure the rest of the audience, which is often comprised largely of Hinton locals who either know or know of the talents hard at work here, feels likewise. One should never expect Broadway production values in Community Theater, but Ars Creo manages to elevate DIY to neoclassical levels, and their motto is “Theatre by the community / for the community.” Ashleigh Gill, the resident playwright, evokes those same deep storytelling grooves that we might recall from the most memorable stories of our youths, but these original tales are born of her own imagination, and her brainchildren have her eyes. Zachary Merritt’s music and choreography drive the action and dialogue, gracefully moving from jaunty to haunting to joyous with an ease that perfectly fits Ash’s nimble motifs.

Last week’s show, “The Heart of the Forest,” which played August 7th and 8th, was particularly successful (I believe the numbers reached 120, a record, on the second night), and proudly wore the finery of experience gained during the 7 total productions they have put on over the years. A fable that explores (among other themes) humankind’s connection to Nature and our fellow inhabitants – the animals – the play manages to convey important moral and ethical messages without being self-righteous (and any writer will tell you that can be the most difficult task, to say the least). The casting here, as always, was perfect. The young Empress Olive (Candace Crawford), the Bear (Scott Bennett), the Fox (Christopher Clark, who also designed and made the costumes), the Crow (Kim Smith), and the Vulture (Andrew Weiss) were our main characters, but one would be remiss to fail mentioning the Wolf (Isaac Preston, who masterfully pulled off a favorite comedic moment was when he broke the fourth wall to point and exclaim “Hit it!” to our loyal musical director Zack, who dutifully complied), the Alligator (Johnathon Rodriguez), the Goat (Nicole Rodriguez), the BlueJay (Gayle Bugg), the Rabbit (Hannah Gates), the Raccoon (Krystina Gore), the Owl (Mary Trent), the Forest Spirit (Pam Jeffries), and all the townsfolk (Gayle Bugg, Kristina Gore, Nicole Rodriguez, and Mary Trent, all of whom played dual roles, along with David Ziegler, who added a sense of elder gravitas to the town). Each of the actors did such a remarkable job inhabiting their characters that I quickly stopped thinking of them as people (some friends and family) in suits (though those were some remarkable suits and masks, to say the least).

The story follows Olive as she rejects some of the most fearful attitudes of humankind to find reconnection with Nature (capital N, because the concept is embodied as the Forest Spirit, who we come to learn is a shapeshifter and is also one of the meekest creatures in the play, though I won’t provide spoilers herein, since there are recordings out there, and they are well worth watching). Each of the characters has an arc, and all of them learn to change or they suffer greatly. Though this musical is replete with meaning, that central message struck me as an important one, and the central reason this production was so worthwhile. As I watched the wondrous story unfold, in both cases, I found myself reacting most to the children in the audience, who were absolutely mesmerized. As I mentioned earlier, I found myself remembering what it was like to be a child watching such a divine creative spectacle, and I was taken there again by Ars Creo. Considering that they do this for free is a priceless, precious thing, and I feel like I owe them all gratitude for their work.

Hinton has much to be proud of, especially when it is able to experience the talent and creativity of their native sons and daughters, and in that regard, Ars Creo is a shining example. As always, I have spent the days afterward replaying their scenes in my mind and anticipating the next time they succeed in evoking smiles, laughs, inspiration, love, and standing ovations from their audience, of which I hope to continue to be a part for a long time to come.

Kevin D Smith,
Adjunct Professor of Literature and Language, Concord University

The Forest Spirit and Olive

The Forest Spirit and Olive