Highlighting Lewis County: ‘Into the Woods’ Production Offers a Trip Down Memory Lane

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As we waited inside Corbet Theatre Saturday evening for the Centralia College production of the musical “Into the Woods” to begin, I perused the program listing the cast members and their backgrounds.

I recognized several names, including Nick Hall, who I recently saw perform in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the Evergreen Playhouse, and Lucy Page, the owner of Santa Lucia Coffee in Centralia. I stopped when I read the name Odette Mohr, thinking back to the 1980s when I worked in The Daily Chronicle newsroom with Orlo Mohr, who covered south Thurston County. I wondered if Odette was a descendant of Orlo and his wife, Opal.

As the musical unfolded, with talented actors and musicians in beautiful costumes singing on stage accompanied by an orchestra, I immersed myself in the unique screenplay by the late Stephen Sondheim interweaving Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’ll admit that even with my brand-new hearing aids, I still longed for subtitles at times, proving I’m rather spoiled with live-streaming at home. We first started using subtitles while watching British dramas like “The Crown'' and “Downton Abbey,” where the accents challenged us to comprehend conversations, but we’ve grown dependent on them whenever we just can’t make out the words spoken — or in this case, sung.

The production was originally scheduled for the 2020 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back two years. The PG-13 performance continues this weekend with performances at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday plus a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. Tickets cost $12, $10 for students and seniors. It’s well worth attending.

“Into the Woods” is absolutely filled with incredible talent, gifted voices, remarkable sets, beautiful music and an intuitive message that resonates today,” said Doris Wood Brumsickle, a retired Centralia College instructor who serves on the Board of Trustees. “Don’t miss the last opportunities to see this fantastic Broadway show right here at Centralia College. What a show!”

“We had such a great time and enjoyed ourselves immensely! It was a joyful evening with dear friends,” said Debbie Campbell, who retired recently after two decades as executive director of United Way. She also serves as a Centralia College trustee. “Corbet Theatre is a great venue for the community to come together and to enjoy such a broad spectrum of talent. Although it is a musical about fairytales, ‘Into the Woods’ does a wonderful job of presenting characters grounded in reality. The show has such wonderful music and lyrics. The fairytale characters are familiar yet are treated with interesting twists. And the idea of finding out what happens after ‘happily ever after’ is part of the charm of this show. It was funny, sad, thought-provoking, and very entertaining.”

I sat in awe of the talent displayed by the colorful costumes, rolling backdrops of rooms, and intricate woods with tall trees, velvety grass, flowers, ferns and Rapunzel’s castle to the strong voices weaving the imaginary tales of Cinderella pining for Prince Charming, a baker and his wife longing for a child, and Jack pulling a white wooden cow to market. Music filled the auditorium as I sat thinking of the decades of productions performed by talented actors on stages of our nearly century-old Centralia College campus. I thought of Phillip Wickstrom, who directed more than 150 of the college’s 221 productions during his tenure from 1962 to 1991, and Frank Rosa and Gordon Aadland, English teachers who performed in many plays. I interviewed all three men while compiling Centralia College: It’s people and their stories. It’s thanks to them and people like Richard Lindner, Marilyn Crosta, and Anne Caldwell that we have the Evergreen Playhouse, a treasure in Centralia formed in 1959 that also showcases local talent every year.

My mind also flitted over now-famous people who displayed their talents on Centralia College stages, such as the late Ford Rainey, a Hollywood film actor who graduated from Centralia and guest-starred on television programs such as “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza”; world-renowned dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham; award-winning country music singer Brandy Clark of Morton; Charlie Albright, a classical pianist and composer who often collaborates with Yo-Yo Ma and performs concerts worldwide; Angela Meade, an American operatic soprano who sings at the Metropolitan Opera; and so many others. Perhaps one day we’ll add singers like Kat Sheridan or Heather Matthews from “Into the Woods” to the list.

Finally, I thought of my own brief stint performing in Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the 1970s during eighth grade. Believe me, if they’d been musicals, I never would have been allowed near the stage. Instead, in a little southeast Colorado town where my family lived only one year, we performed before grade school students in four fairy tales — all in Spanish. Perhaps it was my long auburn hair (or maybe my demeanor?) but I was cast as a witch in both “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I tied my hair beneath my chin as the middle goat in “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and I narrated “Little Red Riding Hood” in English. We created the backdrops for each play by painting on large butcher paper.

While a fascinating dip into drama, I’ve discovered during visits to Mexico little call for reciting in Spanish “Mirror Mirror, on the wall …” and “She will die! She will die!”

Although I experienced early teenage trauma in that town, I also had three of my best teachers whose influence shaped my life, including Mr. Tanner. My social studies teacher, Miss Schmeiser, encouraged us to build a replica of Bent’s Old Fort, a trading fort erected in 1833 along the Santa Fe Trail in southeast Colorado. We outlined the fort in sugar cubes on a spraypainted wooden board, and I wrote a script featuring the Bent brothers, William and Charles, Ceran St. Vrain and Kit Carson. We recorded the stories on tape and donated both it all to the local museum. I doubt they still have it all these decades later.

Finally, Willard R. Stevens taught us how to diagram sentences and put me ahead of every English teacher I had later, including at the University of Washington. When I moved to Vancouver, Wash., I approached my ninth-grade English teacher with a question after he described something as an adverb.

“Isn’t this a predicate adjective?” I asked him.

He looked at me a minute before answering. “Well, I know that, and you know that, but they don’t know that, so let’s pretend.”

Thank you, Mr. Stevens. He also supervised a journalism club and oversaw publication of the school newspaper. You can probably see how he influenced my life.

As I drove up and down Interstate 5 in recent weeks, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic through Seattle and Portland, I was reminded of why I like living in the boonies of Lewis County. Saturday’s play at Centralia College and my recollections of that small town in Colorado reminded me of gems hidden inside smaller communities of this great nation.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.