A tale of two Smiths: Local actress brings latest Lee Smith novel to stage

By Michael Beadle

Actress Barbara Bates Smith was bound to meet novelist Lee Smith.

Back in 1985, a friend sent Barbara Smith a newspaper article about Lee Smith. Then, Barbara read another article about the writer in the New York Times. Meanwhile, another friend from Wilson, N.C., sent word that she had just seen Lee Smith give a reading and said Barbara absolutely had to meet the author.

“These three things happened in one week,” Barbara recalled, “so I said ‘I’d better move on this.’”

Finally the stars aligned and Barbara Smith met with Lee Smith over lunch at Pyewackets in Chapel Hill. The Smiths developed an instant connection for each other and when Lee Smith came out with Fair and Tender Ladies in 1988, Barbara did something she has never done with any other author.

“I ran out of the house, and bought the hardback,” Barbara said.

Drawn to the main character, Ivy Rowe, a young girl who fights through travails and grows into a strong-willed woman who “lives on love” and “keeps on keepin’ on,” Barbara knew she wanted to do something more with this book than read it. She wanted to create a one-woman, stage adaptation, and with Lee Smith’s blessing, she did.

“Ivy Rowe” debuted in Tampa in 1989 with Lee Smith in the audience. In the 21 years since, Barbara Smith has done more than 600 performances of the show throughout the country, off-Broadway in New York City and overseas in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The Smiths have kept in touch all the while. Recently, Lee Smith came out with her latest novel, On Agate Hill, about Molly Petree, a feisty, young orphaned girl who displays all the passion, honesty and humor of an unforgettable character like Ivy Rowe.

“I thought of Ivy Rowe jacked up a notch,” Barbara Smith said.

Needless to say, Barbara couldn’t resist another one-woman stage adaptation, so once again she wrote to Lee Smith, who agreed to a dramatic version of the novel.

The result is “On Agate Hill,” which will have its premier at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville this weekend for three performances — 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, and Saturday, Aug. 18, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19. Tickets are $10 for each show. Proceeds will go to honor HART, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary at the Performing Arts Center on the grounds of the historic Shelton House.

Incidentally, this year is also the 10th anniversary of Barbara and her husband Russell coming to Haywood County.

It’s a rare occurrence to have a non-HART show scheduled on the main stage in the middle of the season, but Barbara Smith has such a local following, that HART Executive Director Steve Lloyd gladly made room for the show. In the midst of upcoming auditions and other scheduled events at the theatre, it can be tricky finding rehearsal time, Lloyd said.

Meanwhile, Smith has been testing the show on small groups of friends to get feedback and tidy up the script. Veteran director Suzanne Tinsley, who has worked with Smith on a number of other projects, directed Smith in “On Agate Hill.” Smith credits Tinsley with refining the subtleties of various characters and transitions in the play.

“Suzanne is so valuable to me,” Smith said. “I’ve never appreciated her as much as with this one.”

The story, which is set in North Carolina, has similarities to Fair and Tender Ladies. Both have a spunky, female main character, a hardscrabble life with tender moments, and an unconventional narrative. While Fair and Tender Ladies is told through a series of letters, On Agate Hill uses diary entries and multiple narrators to tell the story. Molly, who is described as a “spitfire and a burden,” grows up on Agate Hill plantation, then studies at Gatewood Academy in the Raleigh-Durham area of the state, and moves on to mountainous Ashe County where she meets Jacky Jarvis, a talented banjo player who becomes both an object of affection and a source of heartbreak.

“I want to live so hard and love so much, I will use myself up like a candle,” Molly writes.

When she’s given a diary, she is determined to write not what people want to hear but what is truest in her heart.

“She follows her heart to tragedy,” said Barbara Smith.

Even explaining her love for the character, Smith gets teary-eyed. Molly suffers through loss of family members and even gets framed for murder, but she reminds her readers that a life without regrets may be filled with blood and tears, but it is nonetheless a life filled with the passions that few have the courage to attempt.

When the book came out in the fall of 2006, a friend passed along a copy of the novel to Barbara, and she found herself marking favorite passages in the margins, making notes on how it could work on stage. Smith actually started working on the script during Thanksgiving while staying at an old plantation in South Carolina. Subsequent drafts were presented to close friends as well as Lee Smith.

Unlike the book, a script leaves no room for the audience to go back over a scene, so Smith carries the burden of getting every scene just right — especially for those who may not have read the book. Plus there are multiple characters and settings to showcase. Smith and Tinsley tackled the transitions with careful choices of props and simple sets. Jeff Sebens, who provided the musical accompaniment for many of the “Ivy Rowe” shows, will once again play the hammered and lap dulcimers and the banjo between scene changes and to shift the mood of a scene.

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