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Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes to Encore Theatre for 10th anniversary

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It's about coming full circle for local actor, writer and director Joel Meriwether. Ten years ago Meriwether directed Wilson County's Encore Theatre Company's inaugural production, "The Murder Room."

Now, a decade later - and back from a hiatus while he took care of his now late mother who was diagnosed with dementia - he is directing Pulitzer Prize-winning "'night, Mother."

And another circle is complete with this upcoming production because the two leads in the play, Elizabeth Hayes, who plays Jessie, and Meigie Mabry, who plays Mama "Thelma," have played their respective roles at other theatres.

"Meigie influenced Elizabeth's desire to become an actress," Meriwether explained.

Elizabeth elaborated to say when she first saw Meigie perform for an acting class she attended.

"I've been a fan and a follower ever since," Elizabeth said. "Whether the role is comedic or dramatic, she creates engaging, sharp, honest characters that keep me watching and thinking, and striving to be a better actor."

"'nite Mother" indeed is a dramatic play. Meriwether said it's a "taut psychological drama" written by Marsha Norman.

"It's about family relationships and won the most coveted literary prize there is, the Pulitzer Prize for drama," said Meriwether. "The play is intense and thought-provoking. And ultimately shattering. It centers on Thelma and her daughter Jessie who have lived together since Jessie's divorce. While they inhabit the same space they are completely alienated and estranged from one another."

The play contains intense subject matter and is not suitable for children, warned Meriwether.

Directing this award-winning play is "going home again" to the theatre for Meriwether. He didn't start in theatre until he was in high school. He acted in some small roles there.

"It was enough to interest me, and I'd say I was bitten by the theatre bug," Meriwether noted.

At the university level he was thrilled when he landed a sought after role almost right away.

"I became obsessed with learning everything I could with the art form," he said.

He transferred to Lipscomb University in his junior year. His professor (and mentor), Henry Arnold, encouraged him to branch out and experience different roles. He also began directing.

"I found out I was good at directing because I have an eye for detail, and, I learned at the feet of a premier director (Arnold)," Meriwether said. "He was like a second father to me and helped shape my love of the art of theatre."

This will be Meriwether's first production since his mother died, and he said while he cared for her he "knew theatre would always be waiting," for him.

The cast is in rehearsals now and the drama runs Friday, March 25, through Sunday, April 3. Times and ticket prices are at encore-theatre-company.org. It will take place at the Encore Theatre building, located at Holmes Crossing business center on Lebanon Road, just west of Highway 109.

Encore Theatre Company President Mary Gingold said the company was formed in 2006 as part of the Arts Alliance.

"We've been producing shows ever since," she said. "There are about six to eight shows a year. Last year we did 10."

They try to present a children's play each year as well and hope to further reach out to the young folks. The company is non-profit and run by volunteers. She said she was happy when Meriwether approached her about producing "'night, Mother."

"He is one of our founding members and has a definite passion for the theatre and is a fine artist," Gingold said. "He took a break, and we are so happy he's back."

Gingold said she couldn't be "happier about the past 10 years."

"I'm glad we've made this anniversary; it was a personal goal for me," she said. "We are about as strong as we've ever been."

However, securing funding is always upper mind. They work from ticket sales, donations from individuals and sponsorships. They've also received grants from the county.

"I know sports is a big deal in Mt. Juliet," she said. "And I embrace sports, but not every child can, or wants, to play ball."

Gingold said they are looking for more volunteers to help with grant writing and such. One of her favorite duties is helping with auditions. This weekend there will be auditions for an upcoming "MASH" production, loosely based on the popular television show. Michael Rex is directing this play that will have many cast members.

"Community theatre is really cool," she said. "People are always surprised at how good our plays are!"

First, however is Meriwether's "'nite, Mother."

"It's such a powerful show, he said. "I really felt compelled to explore the idiosyncrasies and issues that exist between a mom and daughter. I suppose there are glimpses of people you know in them. It's very bittersweet, they inhabited the same house and were so alienated."

Call (615) 598-8959 for more information about the play or company.

Writer Laurie Everett may be contacted at laurieeverett1@gmail.com.

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'night Mother, arts, Encore Theatre Company, Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, play, production, theatre
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