Smithfield Herald

Neuse Little Theatre brings ‘Mitford’ to life

Rhonda Smith, left, and Randy Jordan, right, rehearse a scene from the Neuse Little Theatre production of "Welcome to Mitford."
Rhonda Smith, left, and Randy Jordan, right, rehearse a scene from the Neuse Little Theatre production of "Welcome to Mitford."

Audience members might recognize the characters in the Neuse Little Theatre’s final production of the season, “Welcome to Mitford.”

The play is adapted from Jan Karon’s series of novels about life in small-town North Carolina. The series revolves around an Episcopalian priest, Father Tim Kavanagh, but features a big colorful cast of characters from the fictional town of Mitford.

The book series is popular in North Carolina, and “Mitford” cast members say the theater has already seen a lot of interest in the show, which will open May 31.

“I would imagine every woman over 50 has read the books,” said cast member Sammy Smith of Smithfield. “It’s a very popular book series.”

But the characters should be familiar even to people who haven’t read the books, said director Stephanie Veren of Garner. Mitford and its inhabitants are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s lived in a small town.

“Everything revolves around faith and community, and people help each other out,” Veren said. “We all know people just like everyone in the show.”

Mitford’s residents are an eclectic mix, including Rose Watson, a traffic director suffering from schizophrenia; Sadie Baxter, the town’s unofficial matriarch and local philanthropist; and the Turkey Club, a group of eccentric regulars at the Main Street Grill.

Kavanagh – played by Fuquay-Varina resident Randy Jordan – is the show’s main character, the popular rector of Lord’s Chapel Church. Kavanagh’s peaceful life undergoes radical changes as he adopts a teenage orphan, falls in love with a new neighbor and struggles with health problems.

But the show has a huge cast, with a total of 23 characters who give the main storyline a rich background. Smith, who plays Bishop Stuart Cullen, compares “Mitford” to “The Andy Griffith Show,” which was also about small-town life. Both have casts of easily-relatable characters and combine comedy with wholesome messages of community and civic responsibility, he said.

“Very rarely in a comedy do you have something that jumps out at you and makes you say, ‘Yeah, that’s true,’” Smith said. “There’s four or five of those in this play.”

The play is family-friendly and has a balance of comedy and drama that should appeal to just about anyone, cast members say. It’s a dramatic shift from the last show, “Rabbit Hole,” which dealt with a tragic subject – the death of a child.

“Sometimes we have plays you don’t want to bring your whole family to,” said Reggie Parker of Four Oaks, who plays the role of church custodian Russell Jacks. “This is one the whole family could go to and everyone would walk out satisfied.”

The script is by Robert Inman, a screenwriter whose body of work includes two Hallmark movies. “It’s basically a Hallmark movie for the stage,” said Mary-Leigh Hamilton, a Clayton resident who plays a diner waitress named Velma. “It’s very family-oriented.”

Cast members move on

The NLT temporarily put its last show on hold after the death Craig Baker, a veteran of many NLT productions. His death shook the Neuse Little Theatre to the core, but the show continued.

Baker would have been the assistant director for “Welcome to Mitford.” Veren said theater members are trying to pick up the pieces and move on.

“I miss him dearly; he would’ve loved the show,” Veren said. “But we’ve chosen to move on and remember the love we had for him and the love he had for us.”