DANVILLE — The quaint, fanciful setting of the Pioneer Playhouse makes playgoers feel like they've walked into Kentucky in days of yore.
Now, even the current performance honors state history.
Through the "Kentucky Voices" series, Pioneer Playhouse annually presents a new play celebrating an aspect of Kentucky culture, many times written by a native author or playwright.
Each summer, the "Kentucky Voices" play draws in the biggest box office numbers, says Robby Henson, artistic director at the playhouse.
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"People like to celebrate their own history and culture, and these plays show the historical legacy in Central Kentucky," he says.
The playhouse is performing Grounded, a play by Juilliard School playwright Chelsea Marcantel based on the novel by the same name by local author Angela Correll.
Grounded tells a heartwarming tale of Annie, a Kentucky girl turned New York City flight attendant, who returns to her roots in the bluegrass after experiencing turbulence in her city lifestyle.
Through the influence of family, faith and an old flame, Annie begins to see coming home as more than just a delay in her jet-setting plans.
Correll based the novel on her experience of returning to small-town Kentucky after living away in Lexington for nine years. Though she grew up in Danville, Correll experienced a "culture shock" when she got married and moved to a farm in Lincoln County, just south of her hometown. The transformation of her story into a theater performance created a new dimension for the tale, while maintaining the heart of it, Correll says.
"It's one thing to share the work by others reading it, but to see it come to life on stage is kind of emotional to be honest," she says.
Correll said she owes the play's success in staying true to her intentions for the novel by the great casting. Erika S. Lee, who plays the lead role of Annie, captured aspects of the character Correll thought about while writing, but never put directly into words, Correll says.
The play captures the rich dialect, culture and setting of Correll's beloved home state derived from personal memories and experiences, making the performance "a dream come true" for her, she says.
Since "Kentucky Voices" began with A Jarful of Fireflies, a play by Catherine Bush about the making of the classic film Raintree County in Danville in the 1950s, the Pioneer Playhouse sought to capture stories precious to Kentuckians and Kentucky history through commissioning plays or writing plays themselves to share them.
Late playhouse Artistic Director Holly Henson crafted and presented The Infamous Ephraim, which told ofthefirst successful ovariotomy performed by Dr. Ephraim McDowell in the 1800s near Danville. Last year, Robby Henson wrote and directed The Wonder Team about the 1921 Centre College football team that beat Harvard University in a huge upset game.
The playhouse's devotion to preserving and performing local stories is unique, as they are the only professional theater in the state to showcase a Kentucky-based play each summer, Henson says.
"We believe we should connect with the audience in a soulful and significant way," he says. "We want to celebrate our patrons' heritage as much as our actors in the arts."
The playhouse connected with Correll and her work when she routinely attended shows with her step-daughter after re-establishing herself in the area.
However, the history between Correll's family and the Hensons runs much deeper. Correll met playhouse Managing Director Heather Henson in middle school. They were both already aware of the historic feud between their ancestors.
In 1915, Henson's great-grandmother, Hattie, shot and killed Correll's great-uncle, Robert Crouch, after an argument about a barking dog, which ended in a jail sentence for Henson.
Fortunately, the families are on friendlier terms now, and the two women even joke about showing a play about their own unique history together.
For Correll, it's stories like these that bind Kentuckians together, and she hopes they remain for future generations to enjoy and share, as they are frequently lost in the ever-changing, fast-paced world.
"Kentucky Voices" allows us to be reminded, she says.
"As the world becomes globally homogenized it causes us to lose our culture," Correll says. "This allows us to preserve it for future generations. It's important to know our history."