All Charlie Anderson wants is to be left alone.
In the opening scenes of the stirring Good Company Players musical production of “Shenandoah,” the Civil War rages around Charlie, a grumpy widower-patriarch whose stubbornness keeps him and his brood of six sons and daughter from taking sides in the conflict.
It’s not his fight, he proclaims, and he’s prepared to hunker down in his little corner of Virginia’s famed Shenandoah Valley and wait it out.
But war has a way of battering down your front door whether you want it to or not. It’s one thing in the abstract to take a pacifist stand. It’s another to be confronted with violence against your own family.
Charlie is about to find out that a split-second moment of revenge can overwhelm the strongest of convictions.
As I sit in the audience a couple of weeks ago on opening night, I’m intrigued with the premise. Even though the 1974 title sounds like an old chestnut – the show is based on the 1965 non-musical movie starring Jimmy Stewart – this is my first time to see “Shenandoah.” Will it be sentimental cheese best left to rot in the 1970s? Or a smart and sharp experience still relevant today?
Any initial misgivings are swept away when Mark Norwood, as Charlie, makes his first entrance. In a moment, you grasp this character: resilient, cranky, funny, loving, obstinate, courageous, deeply principled.
I know I’m in good hands.
“Shenandoah” relies on Charlie as its heart and soul. He gets most of the show’s most introspective songs, penned by composer Gary Geld and lyricist Peter Udell, and Norwood sings them with a brusque, worn authenticity. Filtered through Charlie’s eyes, the complexities and ambiguities of war tease and taunt the audience.
Norwood, 60, inhabits his character like an oily-haired frontiersman slipping on a well-worn ‘coon-skin hat. Some things are just meant to fit.
I’m not surprised. For the more than 10 years that I’ve watched Norwood’s work as director and actor, I’ve always been taken with his passion for community theater.
Sure, just about everyone involved in theater is passionate about it. (You have to be, because people certainly aren’t in it for the money.) But with Norwood, he’s so earnest about theater and the fact he gets to spend his life doing it that it suggests another level of commitment. It’s like talking to a churchgoer who is so much a true believer that his fellow parishioners seem like only-on-Sunday lightweights in comparison.
As the artistic director of Reedley’s River City Theatre Company, which he founded in 2003, Norwood fits the stereotype of the jack-of-all-trade theater guy: producer, director, playwright, actor, set designer, plumber, etc. (His charming wife, Denise, is a partner in all this as well.)
Norwood wears another important hat as well: theater arts coordinator for Kings Canyon Unified School District.
Somehow, in his spare time, he finds his way to act in an occasional GCP production in Fresno. In doing so, he comes back to his roots. He learned from one of the greats: Dan Pessano, GCP’s founding managing director, who taught Norwood at Clovis High School. Norwood went on to direct for GCP in his younger days before striking out on his own in Reedley.
When Pessano suggested that his former student audition for Charlie in “Shenandoah,” Norwood took a look at his fall schedule, saw that he could squeeze it in, and decided he couldn’t pass up the chance. The show’s anti-war slant was a prime consideration, but so was the distinctiveness of the character.
When I call Norwood “earnest” I’m not saying saying he can’t be a big goofball. (I’m thinking of a hilarious Reedley production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” and his string of original shows in his “Blossoms Up” franchise cracked up Reedley for years.) And there are plenty of other roles that I’ve enjoyed him in as well, from Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” (also a GCP production) to the town drunk in the original musical “Rancho Tesoro.”
But this time around, playing Charlie, Norwood connects in a way that seems truly organic. Perhaps it’s because, like Charlie, Norwood has had to work tremendously hard to achieve results. (Charlie has turned his farm into an impressive holding without using any slaves, an important topical point in the show. Norwood overcame a severe stuttering problem as a young man, and that gift of fluency for two hours a night on the stage had a big impact.)
Key to Norwood’s performance, which director Laurie Pessano helped shape, is a sense of two extremes that seem far from each other at first but get closer: a feisty-gruff resilience vs. a sweet, tender sense of grief and loss.
Through it all, the futility and staying power of war is an important theme. In his most affecting song, titled “Meditation II,” near the end of the show, Charlie sings:
I heard the drums
The distant guns
I tried to turn away
But in the end
The price of peace
Was more than I could pay
I have no shame
I lay the blame
At someone else's door
And so the seeds of hate are sown
That blow from war to war
In that moment, with Norwood commanding the stage, a deep pang courses through me. It’s as if I can feel a line stretching from the present to the past, connecting the wars we’re fighting now back through the terrible conflicts that came after the Civil War, and then far, far back to the wisps of history.
Sad to say, that line will likely extend through to wars that are yet to come. It’s depressing, but I’m also happy at the places and feelings to which theater can take me. Thanks to a stirring performance in the leading role, “Shenandoah” leaves a mark on me I won’t forget.
- Through Nov. 8
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494