A theatrical reunion to remember

Attending the Walk To Freedom Reunion were three women who portrayed the lead role of Mary Draper Ingles over the years. From left, this year’s Mary, Melissa Gerth; Kathleen Harshberger, who played the part in the 70s; and Heather Massie, who portrayed Mary in the 90s.

Steve Frey

Have you ever gone to a reunion? If you have, it was probably a family, high school or college get together. It was a wonderful time to catch up on families, new jobs, and, of course, who’s put on a few pounds or has started to gray a little—or a lot.

“A wonderful time” is the crucial phrase in the preceding paragraph, and that was certainly the case last Sunday evening at Sal’s Italian Restaurant in Radford. The Long Way Home, Inc. sponsored a Meet and Greet/Reunion for members of “The Long Way Home” outdoor drama that ran from 1971 to 1999, and the newer rendition, “Walk To Freedom: The Mary Draper Ingles Story,” now in its third year.

And of the different kinds of reunions, this one felt more like family.

The reunion followed the evening performance of Walk To Freedom. Before that show, several former members of the cast and crew proudly stood to be recognized by Dick Harshberger, who was the drama’s director in 1971. Harshberger was also the master of ceremonies during the reunion at a packed Sal’s.

At that gathering, Harshberger asked each person to talk about their years of participation and how they were involved. Some played Mary in the lead role, some were horse trainers (more on that later), and some worked the lights or other parts. They all were proud of their contributions, and there were many knowing nods and smiles as people recognized old friends or shared experiences.


Some of the members of this year’s Walk To Freedom cast and crew attending the reunion were, front row from left, Eli Ayers, Reghan Cutler, and Bekka Knost; back, Landon Kime, Amy Rice, and Jordan Wommack.

Mixed in the group enjoying Sal’s tasty pizza were this year’s cast and crew. They were heartily welcomed to the fellowship of theater brothers and sisters dedicated to preserving Mary Ingles’ story of Shawnee captivity and long walk to freedom.

Back to the horses, though! The original The Long Way Home was about three hours long (the current version is around an hour and 10 minutes). Dan Leary, who participated from 1984-87 and again from 92-94, played every male role and called the play “the epitome of community theater.” He wondered where else you could see “guns, horses, fire and children” all on the stage safely at the same time. He remembered fondly acting as an Indian brave and, after his part, climbing up into a tower to run spotlights for the rest of the show.

The original play took place on the Ingles Farm in Radford before a fire closed the show in 1999. A Washington Post article in 1998 highlighted the outdoor drama as one of the preeminent shows in the mid-Atlantic region. (By the way, the Ingles Farm will be open for visitors next weekend on July 27, and additional performances of Walk To Freedom will take place on July 27, 28 and August 4.)

Many of the reunion members reminisced affectionately about their experiences in the play, and most mentioned the feeling of family and the close-knit community they experienced. Leary’s sister, Phyllis Leary Newbill, who participated from 1986-95, said she remembered that sense of community and that people from “every walk of life all came together and made something special happen—together.” She also recalled that they all “made great friends.” Many of those friendships have lasted to this day!

As an aside, the children in the shows knew the plot and jobs so well that there was even a “children’s production” in 1976. Children ran every aspect of the show with only two adults involved, and they played, you guessed it, the children!

Several former members of the outdoor drama at the reunion continue to be involved in the arts. Leslie Roberts Gregg is a talented NRV portrait artist who recently collaborated with writer Michael Abraham to publish “Keepers of the Tradition: Portraits of Contemporary Appalachians.”

Heather Massie is an actress with a long list of theater credits around the world. She has a one-person play called “Hedy! The Life and Inventions of Hedy Lamarr.” Lemarr was a glamorous actress who just happened to be a brilliant scientist involved with everything from WWII torpedoes to the science behind the modern cell phone.

Massie commented that The Long Way Home was “her first role as an actor” and that she was appreciative that she “got to play such a strong female role early in life.” Massie portrayed Mary over several seasons as well as Mrs. Bingamin, the frustrating “Dutch” woman.


Enjoying the Walk To Freedom/Long Way Home Reunion were, from left, Phyllis Leary Newbill, Dan Leary, and John Newbill!

But this night was all about that sense of community, inspired by continuing both the memory of the plays and their fellowship that, for some, began almost 50 years ago.

The Long Way Home board plans to make this reunion/meet and greet an annual event. The hope is that new members of the cast and crew in coming years will have a chance to join this unique society, which is united by both their shared experiences and love for one another.

Yes, this gathering was very much like a family reunion.

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