True to its name, Pioneer Playhouse has a history of trailblazing. About 60 years ago, Eben Henson founded the theater on little more than determination and a dream.
Decades later, Henson's daughter, playwright and artistic director Holly Henson, keeps tradition alive with an eye toward the future in Pioneer Playhouse's latest show about another Danville pioneer, Dr. Ephraim McDowell, the first doctor in recorded history to perform abdominal surgery. On Christmas Day 1809, he removed a 23-pound ovarian tumor from Jane Todd Crawford, who had ridden 60 miles on horseback to his home in Danville, which is now a historic site open to tourists.
Like the pioneers before her, Holly Henson's efforts are not in vain. Her play The Infamous Ephraim, enjoying its world premiere at Pioneer Playhouse, is a highly enjoyable, entertaining show whose strength lies in its chronicling of local history as only a local could. The play is full of fascinating historic revelations, period accuracy and colorful characters.
For instance, did you know Danville once had a reputation for its bustling night life? People came all the way from Lexington to visit its taverns and saloons.
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The show is full of such fascinating historical nuggets.
The Infamous Ephraim's huge cast of actors, some professionals from New York and some local amateurs, do a formidable job bringing frontier Kentucky to life while keeping the story fresh and entertaining for modern audiences.
While the performances can sometimes be uneven, it is never distractingly so. Particularly strong performances by Daniel Hall Kuhn (playing the older Ephraim McDowell), Victoria Lewis (Tanzy), Sarah Switowski (Jane Todd Crawford), and Mike McRee (Dr. Humphreys) anchor the action of the play, which moves at breakneck speed through key periods of McDowell's life and Kentucky history.
The first act sets the scene, chronicling McDowell's early life, including tensions with his lawyer father, his medical school in Scotland and his first professional practice in Kentucky; the action peaks in the second act with the off-stage surgery on Crawford — a lot of ground to cover. Henson manages this with quick scenes, fluid staging, and two sets of characters from modern and past times.
Though it is impossible to leave the show without having laughed and learned a lot, The Infamous Ephraim's strength sometimes proves to be its liability.
The pacing and delivery of the performances are light and alive, but the show sometimes becomes a victim of its own ambition. That is, it is so wide in scope — touching on complicated themes like slavery, Indian conflicts, local politics, medical ethics, folklore and many others — that we sometimes lose a sense of the play's focus.
The mammoth cast could easily be reduced, and certain scenes, entertaining and interesting as they are, could be eliminated to quicken the pace and sharpen the focus on McDowell, a fascinatingly drawn character.
Easily one of the show's high points, McDowell's wavering marriage of faith and science before his operation on Crawford is particularly well wrought, as well as his kind consideration for the lower classes of society.
Any trip to Pioneer Playhouse is special, and a visit to this world debut of a local story is no exception. In a theater where every beam, brick and doorknob seems to have a history, it is impossible not to feel connected to — and inspired by — Kentucky's unique past.