by Chris Davis
It's been 25-years since the McCoy Theatre at Rhodes College took on what has to be the most ambitious theater project Memphis has ever seen: Nicholas Nickleby, all 8-hours of it. The cast was a beautifully-stitched quilt of students from both Rhodes and the U of M working shoulder to shoulder with faculty members and community actors. Few would argue that, some gifted holdouts excepted, the 37-member cast brought together the best and brightest of Memphis' performing arts community circa 1985. On Saturday, November 6th 21-members of the original cast gathered at the McCoy Theatre to celebrate the epic undertaking.
The first toast was given by Barry Fuller, the show's primary director and his recollections of NickNick's opening moments evoked more than a few nostalgic tears.
Gail Black, a veteran performer returning to the stage in this season's production of A Christmas Story after a 15-year hiatus, describes the show's atypical opening, and the memory of a standing ovation that swept through the theater before the first words were ever spoken:
The actors milled through the audience, conversing with audience members for about 10 minutes before curtain. Then, on cue, we all made our way into our positions on stage for the opening tableau. The audience did not just applaud, they were on their feet, cheering, applauding, before we had said a word. They knew what it had taken to get the show on its feet. We were moved then, and we were all moved when Barry reminded us.
Toasts were also made to cast members who have died, a who's who of great Memphis educators and performers: Walter Smith, Tony Lee Garner, Scott Maitlin, Stephen Lebovitz, Mark Lee Stephens who was killed by a drunk driver while the show was still in rehearsals, and Jim Ostrander, who lent his name to the Memphis theater awards.
Deborah Harrison Van Ness remembers some of Ostrander's off stage antics.
Some of my fondest memories are of trying to hold it together in the wings while being cracked up by Jim who was whispering his lines to me a la Bob Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street... My every entrance was made trying to choke back snickers."
Black describes the reunion as a casual, warm, revisiting with friends to remember an event that many of the cast members acknowledge as a defining experience, unmatched in their theatrical life. "You could really feel the love that went into it," Black says. "And it still existed."