Stage & Dance

'That Madcap Moon' hits home at Pioneer Playhouse

DANVILLE — The Henson family has provided Danville with drama for more than 60 years as the proprietor of Pioneer Playhouse.

And the family itself has always been ripe for a little drama, as Robby Henson showed in his 2003 documentary, Summerstock, which showed a year in the often-tense life of the theater.

This week, Henson opens his production of That Madcap Moon, not a documentary play but definitely one based on his family's history in Danville. The play was written by Henson's aunt Janet Henson Dow, younger sister of the Pioneer's late founder, Eben Henson, based on her teenage memories.

"It was pretty much based on her feelings and memories of growing up in a rooming house in Danville, Ky., which is where my father was raised: in the Henson Hotel," Robby Henson says. "It's the story of a young girl coming of age during the Second World War, based on my aunt, and based on having a Jewish mother and a hillbilly father, and many characters we recognize as being our eccentric and unusual family."

Says Robby's mother, Charlotte Henson: "The conflicts come out in the open."

In the play, father Evan is estranged from his family, living out at a farm and carrying on an indiscreet affair while running for Congress. Boy-crazy daughter May Anne is trying to get approval for a quick marriage to her beau, Tom, before he ships out.

But Henson likes the play's sweetness.

"It's a nostalgic memory play in the vein of Mornings at Seven or You Can't Take It With You, where the audience gets to look back at a time that may have been simpler before all these distractions like the Web and TV," Robby Henson says. "I think our senior audiences will warmly remember this era."

The play is the fifth in what has become the theater's series of plays based in Kentucky — frequently Danville.

"These plays that are set in Kentucky seem to speak to people in Kentucky, so we do one a year now," Henson says.

The Pioneer has a history of doing locally based plays. Eben Henson staged a drama about Danville physician Ephraim McDowell, the pioneer of abdominal surgery, in the playhouse's early years. And That Madcap Moon is a revival of a play that was presented at the Playhouse in 1996 and has been performed around the country and won several awards, including the Theatre Americana National Playwrighting Competition.

The home-based plays started with A Jarful of Fireflies in 2007, Catherine Bush's script commemorating the 50th anniversary of the filming of the Elizabeth Taylor movie Raintree County in Danville. They have included artistic director Holly Henson's retelling of the Ephraim McDowell story, and Elizabeth Orndorff's award-winning Death by Darkness, a mystery set in Mammoth Cave.

Orndorff will return next year with a new script about the supposed 1976 UFO abduction of three Kentucky women on Ky. 78 between Stanford and Hustonville. It is one of the few UFO cases in the United States that has not been explained.

"So next year, it's aliens, but this year, it's World War II," Henson says.

An it's the Henson family, which is not unusual. Robby Henson says a character based on his paternal grandfather, a revenue agent known as Cruel Daddy, was in last summer's play The Dillinger Dilemma, about a supposed visit to Danville by notorious gangster John Dillinger. He appears again as the estranged father in Madcap Moon.

And characters like their grandparents make for some great drama.

"Grandma Henson was a law unto herself and a generous soul," Charlotte says. Robby adds, "And she was a character because she was this Jewish woman from Coney Island who married this hillbilly from Kentucky who was a revenue agent and ran a boarding house with eccentric characters. That ground is ripe for storytelling."

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