Blakie Ridge

Jewett and director Gil Seaux go over play notes.

It’s been an interesting career arc for Jim Jewett of Locust Dale – Madison County farm boy to computer information systems college lecturer and computer lab manager, to playwright. Actually, Jewett is still both a farmer and teacher at James Madison University (JMU), and writing plays isn’t exactly a career that pays him anything, but his literary efforts do a lot of good for the community.

Between trips over the mountain to JMU in Harrisonburg, Jewett, his wife Abbie and his sons still work the family farm, once a dairy operation but now producing corn and soybeans. And in his third persona, he is now the author of “The Lights on Blakie Ridge,” the upcoming dinner theater fundraiser for the Literacy Council of Madison County. The event is set to begin with registration at 6:15 p.m. Saturday, July 8 at Graves Mountain Lodge and will feature the expansive menu that people expect of the lodge. Reservations are due by July 3 and may be made at the Literacy Council office by calling 948-5514 or by visiting the website at www.madisonliteracy.org.

This is actually the ninth play for Jewett, a vibrant man with a quiet enthusiasm for all of his various ventures. Still, his career with drama wasn’t kicked off with a happy event. His wife, Abbie, who teaches at Waverly Yowell School, was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago. A friend was involved with Relay for Life, which that supports the American Cancer Society, so they joined. When the Culpeper group was considering ideas for fundraisers, someone came up with a mystery theater. Jim volunteered to write the script, he’s not sure why, and produced his first one in about four hours. The idea was that it would be a one-time thing.

His work was an unqualified success, so they did another the next year, and then another. The author had fun – he did settings similar to rural Virginia, and added in Culpeper lore and current events. After a while he varied his locations. He used a cruise ship, and then a retro restaurant in New York modeled on the old Studio 54, the popular Disco of the late 1970’s. “I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie,” he says, and loves the intricate plotting of British TV shows. His plays often have a paranormal element as well.

Then, a neighbor suggested that the Literacy Council could really use his efforts, and he was happy to write about places that conjured up Madison. For his first play at Graves Mountain Lodge, there were people scheming to take over a rustic mountain retreat. For the upcoming one, there is a power line about to be built and people take both sides of the controversy. Always, there are disappearances galore, and of course there has to be a murder. Jewett has written the latest script to include more interaction with the audience, a popular aspect.

Another element he enjoys is not letting his cast know who the perpetrator is until the last minute. The actors are local people, with a few friends and family from nearby mixed in, and each of course wonders whether he or she is the guilty party, but the writer doesn’t tell. This year’s cast (each a possible murderer, remember) includes Vicki Brpyles, Judy Butler, Dink Kreis, Orange County Commonwealth’s Attorney Diana O’Connell and her husband Mark, Bob Slavin, Fay Utz, Abby Wohlhueter, Donna Yowell, and both Abbie and Jim Jewett. Brother-in-law Gil Seaux, a retired Air Force colonel who is from Louisiana and now lives in Spotsylvania, will direct. A Jewett son, Anthony, will have a part; one son actually met his wife in a Jewett mystery theater cast.

Worry about possible guilt aside, character revelation and interaction are enjoyable for the actors. Those elements are really the point anyway, and provide the entertainment. But at the final run-through, all is revealed in a very British set-up – everyone is called together, an accusation is made, and the mystery is solved. Confessions are often made tearfully. Fay Utz, a cast member in “Lights on Blakie Ridge,” says the weekly rehearsals are endless fun. There’s no pressure, Jewett says. “Everybody can enjoy it, because there’s no personal gain, and no one is trying to get to Broadway.” It’s funds for a good cause, and he thinks it would spoil it all if he was doing it for a living.

Jewett set up an organization, No Talent Theatrical Productions of Virginia, which became NTTPV Entertainment, to handle the productions. One new twist to the plays has been the filming of teaser trailers like the ones for movies that are posted on YouTube. The trailer for the Blakie Ridge play can be found at http://NTTPVEntertainment.com

The computer guy - writer is happy to help the literacy council, particularly since education is important in his family’s life. After he grew up helping his father on the dairy farm, he went off to college, but didn’t return for a graduate degree until he was in his 30s. He and his wife met while they both attended Mary Washington College. After starting work for a computer firm, he jumped at the chance for a teaching job at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and then went on to JMU.

The Literacy Council works to provide education services to adult Madison residents to improve their lives as jobholders, parents, and most of all life-long learners. It offers individual tutors for those working toward a GED certificate and those for whom English is a second language, computer literacy instruction, classes for job-seekers, and family literacy services.

For tickets to “The Lights on Blakie Ridge,” visit http://www.madisonliteracy.org/, call 948-5514 or go by 304 Thrift Road.

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