Freeport Theatre Festival opens season with 'Washington in the Ohio Country'
Real-life action heroes, past and present, will be celebrated as Freeport Theatre Festival opens its 29th summer season July 13.
The festival features two reprised plays by Allegheny Township playwright Rennick Steele.
“Washington in the Ohio Country” (July 13-29) and “Rivertown Firemen's Jubilee” (Aug. 10-26) are being staged in the summer barn theater on the Westmoreland County farm of Rennick and Marushka Steele, artistic directors and founders of the festival.
Since 1989, the festival has offered classic comedies and original historical dramas. Productions include members of the local community, including the Greensburg area, and trained professionals from the Pittsburgh area. Freeport Theatre Festival is a member of Westmoreland Heritage, as well as Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.
“Washington in the Ohio Country” focuses on the early military adventures of young George Washington in 1753-1755, which set off the French and Indian War. It includes the shots at Jumonville Glen, which were the first in the Fort Necessity campaign.
River City Brass Band veteran Drew Fennell of Natrona Heights, also a member of the Kittanning Fireman's Band, created the original score for “Rivertown Firemen's Jubilee,” a musical inspired by the heroism of local volunteer firefighters and EMS responders.
History comes alive
“We invite people to come and enjoy the experience of being face-to-face with the historical characters of our history books and museums,” says Marushka Steele.
The action of Washington's story continues on the hillside during each performance's intermission. On July 28 and July 29, the historical re-enacting group, Proctor's Militia of Historic Hanna's Town, will join the exploits on the hillside.
“Our history plays are our most popular,” says Rennick Steele. “They are action-oriented and they tell the stories of people from Western Pennsylvania. We hope our plays add to the historic culture of the area, and help young folks learn about theater and local history.”
Actor Brett Brunory of Irwin, who portrays French Canadian Capt. Louis Coulon de Villiers in “Washington in the Ohio Country,” says he enjoys history “and the fact that our area is so rich with it.”
He is in his second season at the theater. “It gives me the opportunity to learn more about history and bring it to life while teaching others about this great area of this great nation,” he says. “Ren has a talent of making our great history relatable and giving life to our past.”
The Rev. James Neal of Ford City, portraying Virginia Gov. Robert Dinwiddie, finds this play a fascinating historical journey with a young George Washington.
“Ren is a stickler for historical facts, and as a result the audience is ushered into his theatrical classroom of historical drama,” explains Neal, former pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Freeport. Amanda Fair of Irwin portrays Rebecca Dinwiddie, the governor's wife.
This is the first historical play for Nathan Love of Harrison Township, and he has landed a prime role.
“I play George Washington, and honestly I feel like he's portrayed as a regular cinematic hero,” he says, “It's a lot of fun to get to be such a famous name in a play. This play is definitely educational.”
Freeport Theatre Festival veteran Courtney Riffer of East Vandergrift says it is enlightening talking to audiences after shows.
“It's fascinating how many people who lived their entire lives in Western Pennsylvania say to me they never realized that all this actually happened here,” he says. “This show is very enjoyable because of the amount of action. It covers two different skirmishes.
He portrays “Half King,” spokesman for the Iroquois Nation, who acts as a guide and scout for Washington as he travels through Western Pennsylvania, particularly from present day Uniontown to Lake Erie. Riffer appreciates what Freeport Theatre Festival brings to the Alle-Kiski Valley and beyond.
“Ren and Marushka demonstrate that you do not need to travel to Pittsburgh to see a good show. Good shows are right in your backyard,” he says.
“Too bad more groups like Freeport Theatre Festival don't exist to do festivals like this,” adds Nathan Love.
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.