Susan South loves and admires Vera Sanders, a woman she’s gotten to know over the years.
For seven days in September, South will become Vera Sanders — again.
This is in the theatrical sense. South is reprising the Sanders role in the upcoming Elkhart Civic Theatre production of “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming.” The bluegrass/gospel musical opens Sept. 7 at the Bristol Opera House.
Set in October 1945, “Homecoming” is the third in a trilogy telling the story of the Sanders family. Dennis Sanders (played by Zach Rivers) is being warmly welcomed home to North Carolina from World War II. He’s planning to take over pastoral duties at the local church from his brother-in-law, the Rev. Mervin Oglethorpe (Douglas J. Lunn).
Mervin and his wife, June (Karen Hoover), are headed out to minister at a small Texas church. According to the show synopsis, Mervin and June’s church community in North Carolina intends to send them out with a bang.
Vera is the matriarch of the Sanders family, joined in parental oversight by her husband Burl (Tom Doughty, also returning to the role). The upcoming Elkhart Civic Theatre shows mark South’s fourth time portraying Vera.
“It’s a role that I could do forever,” said South, an Elkhart-area native who’s been involved in local community theater productions for 37 years, most frequently with Elkhart Civic. She was first invited to play Vera in a 2000 “Smoke on the Mountain” run at the Round Barn Theatre in Nappanee.
South describes Vera Sanders as a strong woman who’s proud of her children and full of unconditional love.
“She’s just simple, with old-fashioned values, and I love that about her,” South said. “I wish I could be more like her.”
South said she’s seen “Smoke on the Mountain” productions where the Sanders can come off as baffoonish. What makes the Elkhart Civic Theatre show special, she feels, is that the Sanders are portrayed as very real people.
“...A very real family,” she said. “They just have a unique way of testifying the word of God through song and words.”
That family includes Rev. Oglethorpe, who married a Sanders daughter and has been embraced by the clan. Lunn describes his character as energetic and fun to play.
“He tries really hard to do the right thing, but sometimes he really puts his foot in his mouth and then he tries to get himself out and it just makes it worse,” Lunn said.
The cast also includes Kelsey Olsen as Denise and Josh Padgett as family black sheep Uncle Stanley. “Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming” is directed by Elkhart Civic Theatre Artistic Director John J. Shoup and assisted by Karen Johnston. The music director is Miriam Houck, and the vocal director is John McCreary.
The chorus is made up of Elise Davis, Dawn Blessing, Brandon Blessing, Carly Swendsen, Karen Johnston, Dallas Johnston, Lorri Krull, Jay Krull and Rachel Schrock.
The orchestra consists of Miriam Houck on piano, John Nymeyer on gut-bucket bass, Chris Beyer on fiddle, Ann Noble on mandolin and banjo, and Steve Colagrassi on guitar.
If you want to go
“Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming” will be performed at the Bristol Opera House, 210 E. Vistula St. The show runs for three weekends: Sept. 7, 8, 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee Sept. 16 at 3 p.m.
Tickets cost $15 for adults and $13 for students and senior citizens age 62 and older. Purchase tickets by calling the box office at 574-848-4116 Monday through Friday from 1 to 5:30 p.m., or reserve online at www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.