A well-known actress and former Miss America brings the female characters in the work of a great American poet Edgar Lee Masters to life on a stage in East Gloucester this weekend.
In a three-day special benefit event Saturday through Monday, Gloucester Stage presents "The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill," with Lee Meriwether portraying Masters' characters.
"It involves a series of 26 women, ranging in age from 14 to 96, who tell their stories," Meriwether in a telephone interview this week. These women's voices came from Masters' epitaph poems that he wrote in the early 1900s and were first published in 1915 as "Spoon River Anthology."
One character is based on an actual person of the Civil War era, Ann Rutledge, alleged to be Abraham Lincoln's first love.
Meriwether always had a fondness for the "Spoon River Anthology," later adapted into a stage version. However, she believed that the poet did not give enough attention to the women residents of the fictional small town of Spoon River, on which original the work was based. So she, along with Jim Hessleman, adapted the work, which includes a song Meriwether wrote called "The Women From The Hill," arranged by Kenneth Atkins.
The one-woman show features nearly all of the female characters. Meriwether discovered that by performing the women in a particular order she could create an overall picture of the life of these women during a particular historic period and she also could depict the life of women on a universal level.
The show premiered in May 2010 at Indiana University Southeast, and later in Los Angeles.
Critic Erin Daley of the LA Theatre Review wrote: "This is an America not told through the dates of battles or political documents, but a more refracted, human view. Sure Abraham Lincoln was mentioned once or twice but the real understanding comes from hearing these women's stories and then trying to imagine the world they came from."
Andrew Burgreen, general manager of Gloucester Stage, said Meriwether — best known for playing Betty in the CBS series "Barnaby Jones," where she starred alongside Buddy Ebsen for eight years and was nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Emmy — has woven a wonderful story here that is both wistful and touching.
Meriwether said it was the challenge of the acting in Masters' work that drew her to the story.
"This show gives people an idea of life in middle America at the turn of the century. Some find it moving and some love the humor," she said. "Some of the characters are witty, some are strange, some are vicious, some are weak."
At one point, Meriwether was the understudy for the "Spoon River Anthology" produced at UCLA.
"I played around then with the idea of doing a show that would have just the women," she recalled. Then through her long-term participation in an actors workshop in Los Angeles, she began work on her adaptation.
Gail McCarthy may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3445 or email@example.com.
If you go
What and who: "The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill," based on a work by Edgar Lee Masters, starring Lee Meriwether, a television star and former Miss America.
When: Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 3, at 3 p.m.; and Monday, June 4, at 8 p.m.
Where: Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main St., Gloucester.
How much: $50. For tickets or information, call the box office 978-281-4433 or visit.gloucesterstage.org.