DANVILLE — Amid a forest of pines and off a small country road in Boyle County lies an eclectic dreamland.
Elements combined from movie sets from the golden age of cinema create a replica of a Western pioneer town, which surrounds an intimate outdoor theater.
Each summer, homegrown actors join those flown in from across the country to engage audiences with lively comedy and a rich history of theater.
Pioneer Playhouse, the oldest outdoor theater in Kentucky, will kick off its 66th summer season under the stars Friday.
The Danville playhouse will premiere One Slight Hitch, a romantic comedy by Lewis Black, a stand-up comic and a regular on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
The play centers around a quirky family in 1980s Ohio obsessed with putting on the perfect wedding for their daughter, who gets cold feet when her ex-boyfriend shows up on the day of the ceremony.
Robby Henson, artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse, says it often chooses comedies to maintain audience attention through outdoor distractions such as "crickets, lightning bugs and stars — or rain clouds."
The theater never cancels a show because of rain. The company and audience simply move inside to a barn with a more minimal set.
Director Brian King says the unpredictability of the weather in outdoor theater creates an intimate, communal feeling among the audience and actors.
"The audience may get annoyed, but I think they secretly like it," King says. "It's like we're in this together, and it's a really neat feeling."
The actors experience similar intimacy through living on the premises of the playhouse throughout the summer season.
New actors live in log cabin-like structures that run along the sides of the theater. The playhouse provides veteran members of the company with single-wide trailers.
Henson says company members and other employees work, eat and take meal breaks to the clang of an old bell, conditioned "like Pavlov's dog."
Eben C. Henson, who founded the theater in 1950, designed the working and living structure for the actors at the playhouse, and built it entirely by hand.
He made the playhouse of reclaimed materials from sets for movies, such as the 1956 film Raintree County starring Elizabeth Taylor, in which Charlotte Henson, Eben Henson's wife, appeared as an extra during filming in Danville.
Robby Henson says the playhouse began with a "Hollywood dream," and the materials contribute to the atmosphere.
"Everything here at the playhouse is unique and unusual," he says.
Henson says the history and legacy of his family and the actors who have graced the playhouse stage, including then-unknowns John Travolta, Lee Majors and Bo Hopkins, draw loyal patrons back each summer.
"We're not cookie-cutter corporate theater here," he says. "People know us and our actors."
Henson's cousin, Eben French Mastin, performed onstage at the playhouse for more than two decades. He will portray the father in One Slight Hitch. Another veteran performer, Patricia Hammond, will play the eccentric mother.
King says these actors contribute stability and adaptability to each performance because of their familiarity with the challenges of outdoor theater.
Hammond says the young actors, though focused and disciplined, often experience difficulty in projecting their voices loud enough to reach everyone in the audience in the wide outdoor atmosphere.
The company began rehearsing for One Slight Hitch two weeks before opening night.
King says the uninterrupted rehearsal time helped actors acclimate to the playhouse lifestyle. As the season progresses, the company will be able to rehearse only in the mornings because there are shows Tuesday through Saturday nights.
One Slight Hitch will run through June 20.
During the coming season, the playhouse will present La Bête, a farce set in 17th-century France, from June 23 to July 4.
Grounded will run July 7 to 18 as a Kentucky Voices Event, through which the playhouse features Kentucky writers, stories and history onstage. Chelsea Marcantel, who is based in New York, wrote the play as an adaptation from the novel by Stanford author Angela Correll about a woman who leaves the big city to return to her small Kentucky hometown and experiences the challenges of farm, family and the rekindling of an old flame.
The playhouse also will present a Sherlock Holmes mystery and a romantic comedy set in the 1960s. Jimmie Walker, a comedian best known for his role as J.J. on the 1970s sitcom Good Times, will entertain audiences with stand-up shows Aug. 20 to 22.
The playhouse will serve a barbecue dinner on the patio courtyard before each performance, and Charlotte Henson will perform folk tunes for the diners.
The down-home setting under the summer stars belies the hard work of the cast and crew that will manifest in the performances this season, King says.
He considers it "glorious chaos."