Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Henry, The Lantern Theatre

(From left: Bill Hoffman, Bobby Williams, Terrell Richardson, Jr.)

Are you sorry you never got to see plays put on in a barn, the ones like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney always launched?

Well fret not. There’s a big red bard in Valley View that is the site of a lovely 45-minute production, perfect for the whole family.

It is John Henry written by accomplished Cleveland playwright Eric Schmiedl, and it’s happening at The Lantern Theatre at Canal and Tinker's Creek Roads, just a few pedal pumps away from the Towpath bike trail.

This theater, now in its second summer of operations, is housed in a barn built in 1905, and features a 40-foot-high room that once served as a hayloft.

Now it’s a stage for a tidy production focusing on the legend of the title character, the famous steel-drivin’ man. It opens with a couple period folk tunes strummed out by Bobby Williams, who plays the title role, and Bill Hoffman who plays Hopper, John Henry’s pal and “shaker.”

The story is narrated by Elijah (a wide-eyed Terrell Richardson, Jr.), who also interacts with the other two as a young man eager to “do something” and not just go back to school.

The play showcases the playwright’s impish sense of humor, as the tunnel diggers eat beans and rhapsodize about other food they’ve had (peach cobbler, chow-chow, etc.)

And more laughs are added when the curmudgeonly Hopper instructs Elijah in the ways of being a shaker, the guy who holds the metal spike so John Henry can pound it with his big sledgehammer. Hoffman’s affect is perfectly suited to this rough-hewn man

We’re watch John Henry on his last tunneling assignment, and thanks to Williams’ evocative performance chops and presence we get in touch with this blue collar laborer—in a way that is both entertaining and contains a good message for the little ones.

Not only is the play a delight, kids are able to see a real old-fashioned Wisconsin-style barn up close. And the actors are happy to pose for pictures with everyone after the show.

During the Q&A session at the end, ask the performers to pluck out a rendition of the song John Henry, if they haven’t already played it. It seems particularly resonant after watching the play.

Whether you drive to the theater or include it as part of a family bike hike and picnic, it’s a very special treat.

John Henry
Through July 28 at the Lantern Theatre, Saturdays at 1 and 3 PM, Sundays at 2 PM, at the corner of Canal Road and Tinker’s Creek Road in Valley View, 216-401-5131

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