The final words that Theodore Estes, son of a Nelson County sheriff, heard before the bullets from Nelson County judge William Loving’s gun sent him spiraling out of this life on April 22, 1907, were an indictment, conviction and sentence, packed with gunpowder and sent through his 26-year-old body. “So you were out buggy riding with the ladies last night, were you?”
Loving’s daughter, Elizabeth, had returned to her home in an “unconscious condition, dishonored, destroyed,” according to a description from Loving in Richard Hamm’s Murder, Honor and Law: Four Virginia Homicides Between Reconstruction and The Great Depression. The Daily Progress covered the murder in an article headlined “Father Invoked Unwritten Law/ Loving Slays Author of Daughter’s Ruin.” Rumors about Estes and Lizzie Loving hinted at everything from star-crossed lovers wrecked by family conflict to drugs and rape.
In 2007, Larry Alan Smith, the artistic director of the Wintergreen Performing Arts Center, spoke with local playwright Peter Coy, co-artistic director of Nellysford’s Hamner Theater along with Boomie Pedersen, about the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival. The fest coincided with both the 400th anniversary of Virginia and the 200th anniversary of Nelson County, and Smith wanted a play from Coy.
“He said, ‘We want you to do a play up there. Do you know of any plays that took place in those days?’” Coy tells Curtain Calls during a phone interview. “And I said no, but I know a story that took place in Nelson County.”
And while A Shadow of Honor, Coy’s account of the Loving murder, sold out each show at last year’s Wintergreen Summer Music Festival, the play’s reach extends far beyond the night of April 22, 1907. Pedersen convinced Coy that audiences at Wintergreen were interested in the murder and that’s what they got, but Coy had other plans for the show that would make it both more expansive and more ambiguous.
“I mean, the story is great,” says Coy. “But I was more interested in why this man [Loving] was so quick to kill this boy.”
Coy and Pedersen, who directs the current production of A Shadow of Honor at Hamner Theater, both resist simple answers in their performances and productions by digging into the psychologies of characters. Pedersen and her mother, Carol, are unabashed fans of Anton Chekhov (evidenced in their March 2007 production of the Doug Grissom-adapted Uncle Vanya), and Coy cites Henrik Ibsen, a Chekhov precursor, as an influence. Ibsen and Chekhov broke the unblemished exterior of Victorian drama with plays that questioned perspectives and subjectivity.
And Coy followed suit with A Shadow of Honor, which—in its complete incarnation—pairs the 1907 murder of Estes with the tensions enveloping a young modern couple. When Coy realized that William Loving was born in 1858 and lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, he began to think about the effects of war on children, the scars of a domestic war on domestic life. The modern couple, Kathy and Tyler McNeill (played by Richard Averitt and Rose Harper), struggle with a steadily uncovered history of abuse in Tyler’s family tied up in the Vietnam War while Ruffin (played by Jonas Collins) tries to rationalize his savage impulses.
While we’re talking about digging up history, it bears mentioning that another one of Coy’s plays, Poe & All That Jazz, is getting a second life during the Washington, D.C., Capital Fringe Festival, which runs from July 10 to July 29. Each show gets at least five productions, according to Coy, and Poe is scheduled for six. The singularly strange Jon Cobb returns to his gig as Edgar Allan Poe, and siren Patti Finn keeps her gig as the tune-carrying ghosts of Poe’s previous lovers.
“If anything, [Poe] is voluminous,” Coy says about the droopy-eyed gloomster at the play’s center. Tasked with paring the play down to a one-act of 75-80 minutes, Coy says that he’ll have to make “major cuts, without losing the essential gloriousness of Poe.”
As if the visions and revisions weren’t work enough, Coy plans to produce A House in the Country, his award-winning 2000 play based on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a father and son, at Wintergreen this year. Neither Poe nor Honor will make an appearance at Hamner or a theater closer to town in the near future—all the more reason to see them now if you can.
CC points out that Coy’s type of writing—fleshing out emotional impulses and psychological nuances, cleaning out each character’s dusty attic of neuroses—must be a bit time-consuming, as well. “I think Ibsen said that every character he has ever written in a play, he lived. And, in a sense, that’s what I do,” says Coy. “I sit on these characters and I think about them; I live their situations and the genesis of their emotions.”
Different kind of production
Curt received word this week that The Great “SEAL” of Virginia, artist Irwin Berman’s short film about the spirit of a deceased UVA mascot that devours and promptly, ahem, passes a Cavalier, was approved by UVA’s Committee on Public Art for an outdoor screening. The film will screen during alumni weekend on Friday, June 6, every 15 minutes from 9-10pm, and an e-mail from Berman mentions that animal crackers will be served.
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