Actresses Lynne O’Meara and Deana Kay Gilley have a lot in common.
Two years ago, both women appeared in the Port Tobacco Players’ production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Starting this weekend, both will star in the Hard Bargain Players’ adaptation of “And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson.” And both O’Meara and Gilley say they draw on deeply personal experiences in their latest roles.
“And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson,” written by Jim Leonard Jr., is the story of Elizabeth Ann Willow, a girl living in the small town of Jackson, Ind., during the 1950s. Stricken with polio at a young age, Elizabeth is confined to a wheelchair and ostracized by schoolchildren and townspeople alike. The play follows Elizabeth from age 9 to 24, as she becomes increasingly isolated and eventually driven to the brink of insanity.
The Hard Bargain Players’ production is directed by Sean Michael Fraser, who acted in his first show with the theater company in 2009 and says he first saw “And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson” seven years ago.
“I fell in love with the show when I saw it,” Fraser says. “It’s a very touching story about survival.”
But O’Meara says she feels the play is about more than one individual’s will to survive. She says the play has a message of understanding.
“Its about accepting people for who they are,” says O’Meara, who lives in Bryantown, and is acting in her second show with the Hard Bargain Players.
O’Meara plays Elizabeth’s overprotective and guilt-stricken mother, who is constantly defending her daughter. Gilley stars as Elizabeth while four other actors portray upward of 20 characters, including the children who relentlessly tease and torment Elizabeth, and the adults in the community who do the same.
For Gilley, playing a character who is limited both physically and emotionally certainly came with a set of challenges. She says the role forced her to draw on her experiences as an actor, and in life.
“Having someone so happy and then trying to change your character over the course of the show is a huge challenge,” Gilley says. “Portraying someone who wants to leave so badly ... it was emotional for me.”
The 17-year-old from Hughesville says she found many similarities between the character Elizabeth and Anne Frank, who she portrayed in the Port Tobacco Players’ production two years ago.
“Anne feels so cooped up and she dreams her way out of it,” Gilley says. “Elizabeth has a similar feeling cooped up in a wheelchair and wanting to dream her way out of it. Finding these little connections with the characters was awesome.”
When it came to adjusting to playing someone with physical disabilities, Gilley says she drew inspiration from her personal life. Gilley’s brother was wheelchair bound and died last year.
“Having that experience with me already gave me the outlook he had on life,” Gilley says. “It’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had acting.”
O’Meara also looked to family for inspiration in her role as a mother who carries the burden of her daughter’s illness.
“I have an 11-year-old daughter and a 31-year-old, and being a mother and very protective and loving your children, I draw on that experience,” says O’Meara, who also has two grandchildren.
Like Gilley, O’Meara looked to some tougher life experience to help her embody a character who feels a sense of helplessness.
“I lost a baby,” O’Meara says. “I’ve been through the loss of a child.”
For O’Meara, Gilley and the rest of the “And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson” cast, the challenges weren’t limited to learning to become someone new.
“The most difficult part was dealing with Hard Bargain Farm,” O’Meara laughs. “It’s an interesting place to do a show.”
The Hard Bargain Players perform in an outdoor amphitheater in the middle of the woods.
“There are some points when planes fly over, there are huge spider webs,” Gilley adds.
But despite having to brave the elements, Gilley says the pros outweigh the cons.
“You’re not trapped in a building,” Gilley says. “It’s the most comfortable I’ve been on stage ... it’s just a nice place to be.”