A! Magazine for the Arts

"Heaven Sent" is on Barter's Main Stage through Nov. 14.

"Heaven Sent" is on Barter's Main Stage through Nov. 14.

REVIEW: 'Heaven Sent' Should be Barter's Christmas Show

October 18, 2009

*** Published: October 15, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

Christmas seems to have come early to the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., this year with a heart-warming and wonderful little play called Heaven Sent.

Based very, very loosely upon the 1861 novel Silas Marner by George Eliot (the nom-de-plume of Marian Ann Evans Cross), Heaven Sent is set somewhere in Kentucky during the American Great Depression.

Old Samuel Langley, played to subtle perfection by Eugene Wolfe, is a curmudgeonly old miser who lives alone in an isolated cabin on the outskirts of the community of Raveloe.

He gathers herbs and concocts medicinal potions that he sells not to earn a living – he lives mainly on wild fruits, berries and nuts – but to accumulate an ever-burgeoning sack of coins, which has become his only obsession in life, the only thing he values and the only thing that he apparently lives for.

Then one cold night, a drunken woman named Nancy Flagg (Julie Schroll) wanders near his cabin, her little girl in tow, and passes out drunk in the forest nearby. The little girl, whose name at the time is merely "Baby," makes her way to Samuel's cabin and, mistaking him for Santa Claus, invites herself into his humble dwelling and, eventually, into his stubborn old heart as well.

"Baby," who later is named Eppie, features two marvelous young actors who share the role in different performances: Savannah Grace Willis and Halle Harrison. Harrison, for whom her role as young Eppie is her Barter debut, is a second-grader at Watauga Elementary in Abingdon and is, I am told, simply wonderful in the role. The "young Eppie" that I saw, however, was Savannah Grace Willis, a 9-year-old thespian hailing from Radford, Va., where she has been a member of the Soul to Soul Players from Valley Harvest Ministries since she was 5.

Suffice it to say that Savannah is one of the most talented and beautiful young actors to grace the Barter Stage during the nearly 20 years that I have been reviewing there. She sings strongly, has all the right moves, and nails her lines and marks spot-on. And she has a lot of lines! It takes her several weeks to win the heart of Samuel, but she will capture yours in the first 15 minutes.

Tricia Matthews is also notable in her role as Mrs. Winthrop, as are several other Barter favorites. Mary Lucy Bivins directs and that alone should tell you that the play is snappy, well-acted and enjoyable.

Another person who contributes much to this production is the new lighting designer, Joshua Benghiat. I have seldom if ever seen a Barter production so well lit as "Heaven Sent." Although it has never been bad, necessarily, I have often thought that better lighting could have enhanced many productions. One often fails to notice lighting until someone comes along such as Benghiat who really seems to know his stuff, and this brings home just how much a part of the play lights can be.

This is a play that reminds me of Our Town or It's a Wonderful Life. It isn't syrupy, but it is sweetly heartwarming and makes one leave the theater feeling positively good.

There are no big surprises at the end, although there could very well have been had not playwright Rick Whelan possessed such a gentle touch with his script. He definitely knows how to present his characters as real flesh and blood human beings who are neither all good nor all bad, just folks getting on with their lives as best they can and managing to cope with whatever comes along.

People of all ages should enjoy this gentle production of a good story well-told.

If You Go: Heaven Sent is on Barter's Main Stage through Nov. 14. For dates, times and reservations: (276) 628-3991 or http://www.bartertheatre.com.