By Debbie Adams
Star City Playhouse opened on Pollard Street in downtown Vinton in February 2017. With great sadness, owners Marlow and Karon Semones Ferguson announced that they have closed their doors as of December 31, 2019, barring a surprise benefactor or a winning lottery ticket.
The Fergusons say that while they had great hopes of becoming a destination in Vinton, they were never able to build a following with the local theatre.
Star City Playhouse is a small community theatre. It has been in existence under its current name since 2005 although it got its start in 1994 in Elizabeth, N.J. The Fergusons operated it as the Elizabeth Playhouse before relocating the theater to be closer to family in Roanoke.
The Fergusons have decades of combined experience working in and around theater. Marlow arrived in New York City on July 4, 1961 to begin his formal acting career, having grown up in Louisville.
The couple met when Karon— who was studying at Hollins University— got an internship with the Muppets Show. She was looking for a place to live in New York and came across Marlow’s apartment building. They started “talking and talking, and writing and writing, for almost a whole year before he actually came to Roanoke” and they went on their first date.
They married and she moved to Manhattan. She told him she didn’t know if she could live without her Blue Ridge Mountains. He had an artist paint a four-story high mural of the mountains on his back courtyard wall, so that she “had the Blue Ridge Mountains in Manhattan.”
Marlow has served primarily as artistic director, although he has continued to take on acting roles on occasion. He not only loves acting himself, but thrives on helping other actors to develop their full potential— to perfect their craft. He has helped some to get their start in theatre with their first roles, including both adults and students.
Karon has been the producer, set and costume designer, and Playwright in Residence.
It has always been their goal to introduce audiences and actors to a wide variety of shows ranging from Broadway’s beginnings to unfamiliar playwrights, not just the standards.
“You are likely to see plays you’ve never seen before,” Karon noted early on. “Our motto is ‘Broadway’s Best at Yesterday’s Prices.’” They have kept that promise to present lesser known, but delightful plays for these past three years, bringing “unsung gems” to the community.
“This is what we do,” said Karon. “We will choose a play not because it’s been done to death, but because it will stretch our actors’ craft.”
The Fergusons chose each production with great consideration, from among their own favorites, hoping that the play would become an audience favorite as well, provoke thought, or at least broaden the scope of their experience.
Star City Playhouse, to them, has been “a labor of love.”
Since 2017, Star City Playhouse has presented over 20 excellent productions. Most have run on three consecutive weekends— on Friday nights, with Saturday and Sunday matinees. For a time, they presented Munchtime Theatre productions on weekdays at noon with the audience invited to bring their lunch along and actors reading their parts informally from scripts.
Star City opened in Vinton with a Valentine’s production of “Shakespeare in Love” which included readings from the sonnets and romantic scenes from Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. The cast included Gene Marrano, Jane Gabrielle, Brandi Dawson, Bob Toven, Vickie Haynie, and Marlow Ferguson.
Many fine actors were introduced to the community in their inaugural season during full-length productions of the “Belle of Amherst,” “The Nerd,” “Bus Stop,” Enemy of the People,” and “The Second Man.”
Linsee Lewis starred as 19th century poet Emily Dickinson in “Belle of Amherst.” The play, based on her poems, diaries, and letters, revealed a woman eccentric by choice.
Next up was “The Nerd,” a comedy that introduced Chris Reidy to Vinton audiences in the title role. Audiences came to know that a treat was always in store when Reidy was in the cast, as he so obviously enjoyed every part he played and generated enthusiasm and engagement with the audience.
Other cast members included Patrick Regal, student Eva Pierce, Michael Ridenhour, student Latriva Pierce, and Diane Heard.
“The Nerd” is the story of the houseguest from hell with “no social sense, little intelligence, and even less tact” who outstays his welcome, admitted at first because he had saved the life of his host in battle many years before.
The drama “Bus Stop” is set in a diner outside Kansas City circa 1955. Several bus passengers are stranded during a March snowstorm and take shelter overnight in the diner— resulting in some romantic entanglements. This production featured Diane Heard, Kallie Parish, Bob Toven, Joe Kavanaugh, Meredith Dabney, Lane Kinsley, and Gary Reid with Marlow Ferguson as the bus driver.
“An Enemy of the People” was a timely choice about political corruption and having the courage to speak truth to power. A beloved doctor has become suspicious that the local health baths are contaminated by a tannery upstream. When he prepares to reveal his findings in the interest of public health, expecting gratitude from the townspeople, he discovers instead they want his findings withdrawn in the interests of the economy. He becomes “the enemy of the people.”
The cast for this production included Chris Reidy, Gina Pierce, Latriva Pierce, Bob Toven, Joe Kavanaugh, Robert Smith, Lucas Pickett, and Gene Marrano.
“Second Man,” a romantic comedy set in Manhattan in the 1920s, portrays a writer choosing between a very wealthy widow who can support his lifestyle and a spunky, beautiful younger woman who worships him– but poor as a church mouse. The writer’s awkwardly nerdy friend is “dotty” about the younger woman and wants to marry her.
“Second Man” featured a cast of four— Chris Reidy, Brandi Dawson, Diane Heard, and Lucas Pickett.
The 2018 season offered more gems: “Gin Game,” “Private Lives,” “The Dresser,” “Cactus Flower,” and “Mr. Pim Passes By.”
“Gin Game” featured Jane Gabrielle and Gene Marrano in a “tragi-comedy.” They played (with great chemistry) the roles of two residents of a run-down “old folks’ home.” Both fairly new to their circumstances are experiencing some difficulties adjusting to the many challenges of their new lifestyle.
The pair strike up an acquaintance when he talks her into playing cards to pass the time on Visitor’s Day, when neither is fortunate enough to have friends or family stopping by. Initially they enjoy one another and share confidences. Over time their relationship becomes more contentious.
This was Marrano’s first leading role. Well-known throughout the region as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist and editor, he had experienced a “middle-age creative crisis” and took up acting.
The romantic comedy “Private Lives” featured Chris Reidy, Wendy Newman, Christy Remy, and Lucas Pickett. A couple, previously married, meet again during their respective honeymoons with their new (and younger) spouses. They realize they still have feelings for each other– there is still a spark, which they quickly set about rekindling.
Marlow chose “Private Lives” because it is simply “the funniest love story I have ever seen.”
“The Dresser” is a tragi-comedy portrayed from a unique perspective— a play within a play, and about the theatre. An aging actor is seemingly on his last legs, far past his prime. Norman, his dresser (costumer), idolizes him and enables him to prepare for each performance.
The cast included Joe Kavanaugh, Michael Ridenhour, Gene Marrano, Diane Heard, Leah St. Claire, Brandi Dawson, Jan Hodnett, and Marlow Ferguson.
Karon said it took her 20 years to convince her husband to produce “The Dresser”– one of her favorites– because the storyline involves the taboo topic of an actor who forgets his lines, she suspects.
The romantic comedy “Cactus Flower” featured Gene Marrano, Leah St. Clair, Bob Toven, Cathy Fisher, Elizabeth Dressler, Phil Boyd, Mary Simmons, Dylan Walsh, and Marlow Ferguson.
The play opens with a half-hearted suicide attempt by a young woman in response to a supposed rejection by her middle-aged married, womanizing-dentist.
The audience learns the dentist is merely pretending to be married to avoid making a commitment. The young lady is rescued by her handsome next door neighbor. The dentist then decides to propose, but his lover is so guilt-ridden that she insists on meeting his (fictional) wife to make sure the marriage is over.
The dentist recruits his loyal, no-nonsense, snappish (and secretly love struck) nurse to pose as his wife. She reluctantly agrees and the dentist comes to realize where his heart truly lies.
“Mr. Pim Passes By” is a romantic comedy with a cast which included Michael Johnson, Chris Reidy, Diane Heard, Leah St. Clair, Mary Lynn Rose, and Lucas Pickett. Mr. Pim is an absent-minded old man who inadvertently creates havoc by leading a young couple to believe that the wife’s first husband– some six years deceased– is actually alive and well. One of the best lines from this production was by the wife who says the only happy day in her first marriage was “reading in the newspaper that he was dead.”
In 2018 Star City Playhouse received the Silver Award from “The Roanoker” magazine for Best Live Theatre/Playhouse in the Roanoke Valley as voted by its readers.
In 2019 Star City elected for a “Season of Giggles” focusing on “a treasure trove of turn of the century farces,” primarily one-act Victorian era comedies (predecessors to the “I Love Lucy”-type sitcoms), written for pairs of actors with “two for the price of one” performances.
“For 25 years we have introduced the public to little-known and not-overdone shows,” Karon said in announcing the season line-up. “We try to present good plays with great actors on a shoestring budget. We’ve gladly served over 25,000 patrons and look forward to another year. This year, we felt we needed laughter and wanted to introduce these fine plays from once upon a time.”
Productions in 2019 included the pairing of “Husband in Clover” with “Villain and Victim,” “Box and Cox” with “Fourteen,” “Backward Children” with “Crystal Gazer,” and “The Confederates” with “The Boor.” The season ended with “The Bargain.”
“Husband in Clover” once again paired Gene Marrano and Jane Gabrielle in a one-act farce. The husband, bored with his marriage, has taken to writing in his journal about memories of his bachelor days and past loves, and disparaging his dull wife who has trapped him in a “life of torture.” His wife reads the diary and decides to make changes.
“Villain and Victim” features a devoted young couple (Austin Blank and Kayla Jones) who have decided to become actors in an amateur production and rehearse their lines together— he plays the role of villain; she is the victim.
“Box and Cox” involves a greedy landlord who rents a room to two lodgers, one who works at night and one who works during the day. Box and Cox are not initially aware of the arrangement and only meet as they pass one another in the hallway and on the stairs going to and coming from work. They attribute missing and moved items in the room to their landlord. That’s until one of them has a day off.
“Box and Cox” starred Christy Remy, and students David Scott and Joe Francis.
“Fourteen” featured Kay Ragland, Christy Remy, and Latriva Pierce. “Fourteen” refers not to an age, but to the invited guests at a dinner party where a mother plans to introduce her daughter to a millionaire in hopes she will sweep him off his feet. Unfortunately, dinner plans are disrupted by an unexpected blizzard and the chicken pox.
“Backward Child,” is the tale of an impish child who antagonizes every governess her father hires. The latest governess is more interested in her paycheck than her charge. This play featured Latriva Pierce and Katerina Yancey.
“Crystal Gazer” is the story of a soothsayer sought out by a woman trying to locate her fiancée. The sorcerer has established a lucrative profession preying upon the gullible, doing extensive research before she meets them for crystal ball sessions. Barbara Grisham and Cathy Fisher made up the cast.
“The Confederates (not Civil War)” is a dialogue between a couple conspiring to convince everyone present at a dance that they are engaged— in order to discourage the courtship of an elderly royal. Elizabeth Dressler and Jesse Womack played the parts.
Dressler and Womack were also in the cast for “The Boor,” joined by Chris Reidy. A young woman has been secluded in her home since the death of her inconstant husband. Her servant begs her to rejoin society. A landowner demands to see her, claiming her late husband owed him a debt which must be repaid immediately. She has no money in the house. They bicker; she brands him “a churlish boor.” While dueling, they realize they have fallen in love.
The final production at Star City was “The Bargain,” adapted by Karon from Charles Dickens, and featuring Joe Francis, Lucas Pickett, Matthew Newcomb, Alex Lyons, Bob Toven, Christy Remy, Jesse Womack, Latriva Pierce, Marene “Mo” Aulick, Sharon Reynolds, Hazel Dayze, and student Julian Delgado.
A bitter man spends much time thinking about wrongs done to him in the past, including a love lost long ago to an unscrupulous rival. He is visited by a phantom with whom he strikes a supernatural bargain to erase his unpleasant memories. Anyone he meets will likewise be unburdened of their painful memories.
By agreeing to the bargain, he unleashes a chain of unpleasantries among those he is closest to. With no memories to balance their relationships, the initially good-hearted, upbeat, salt-of-the-earth (but poverty-stricken) characters turn on one another with brutal candor.
With so many productions performed, it is difficult to pick a favorite— other than any play featuring the hilarious Chris Reidy, works which included Gene Marrano, especially paired with Jane Gabrielle, those which included Marlow Ferguson with his wonderful voice, facial expressions, and wit, and productions with Elizabeth Dressler and Leah St. Clair with their impeccable comedic timing and body language.
Star City Playhouse has presented a matchless variety of productions over their three years in Vinton. We are so sorry to see them go. Thanks for all the memories!