A contributed perspectives piece by Glenn Logan Reitze
John Glick’s, “Can’t Feel at Home,” is a remarkable play. It tells a story – basically true – likely to be understood and appreciated anywhere, but that will resonate most deeply here in Virginia, within sight and shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The play is by Dr. John T. Glick, a locally well-loved physician who practiced family medicine in the neighboring towns of Elkton and Shenandoah. But he is probably far more widely known as the shorter member (with tall fellow physician, Dr. Steve Phillips) of the hilarious guitar & banjo musical comedy team, Glick & Phillips.
The doctor duo performed its unique blend of always-freshly written typical humor and local political satire sporadically for some 44 years, often in the City of Harrisonburg and especially for charity in his homebase of Elkton.
John’s friends may be understandably annoyed with me if I fail to mention that Dr. Glick also did charitable work as a traveling “clown doctor” and board member of the Gesundheit! Institute, the holistic medical charity headed by his friend and colleague, Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams, who was the subject of a well-known film starring actor Robin Williams. (Glick met his wonderful wife, Nanny, on one of the Institute’s medical clowning trips to Peru.)
But back to the play! Over the years, Dr. Glick is said to have listened to numerous stories from his patients and neighbors about the traumatic expulsion, in the Depression years of the early and mid-1930s, of everyone who lived in an eight-county section of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, which included a few hundred families scattered widely over its steep, wooded slopes of our beloved Blue Ridge Mountains in Rockingham, Page, Warren, Albemarle, Greene, Madison, Rappahannock, and Fauquier Counties.
They had been forced to leave their mountainside farms and orchards to facilitate construction of the 105-mile Skyline Drive scenic highway along the often-narrow crest of the Blue Ridge, as well as, theoretically, to permit the conversion to a “natural condition” of wild vegetation of all the small farms (averaging about seven acres per farm family, and all-together covering only a tiny 1.42 percent of the Park’s total land area).
The announced goal was also to eliminate almost completely the carefully planted apple orchards and the “open spaces” of cow and horse pastures, and somehow to rehabilitate. This would not be an easy task, as the forests were scarred by frequent fires as well as by decades of tree slashing to pull off the inner bark of oaks to tan animal hides, and by massive mutilation of repeatedly over-logged forests to make charcoal to fed small, local, iron-smelting furnaces (one to six acres of trees per day per furnace, or 1,700 acres or more burned in a year). Then add to this the hundreds of boxcars of rough-cut lumber for railroad ties, fence posts, building frames and floors and shingles and sliding, furniture and firewood.
All this envisioned to turn this huge chunk of much-exploited mountain real estate into a “restored natural area” with a fine road but without human inhabitants – at least not the poor.
Recalling those stories of the exodus of the Mountain dwellers, Dr. Glick crafted a largely true and quite fascinating drama with a few spins of square dance plus our ever-popular gospel music, and a welcome smattering of humor. On stage, the calico quilt of related tales begins to take form from a lively introductory tale told by a grandma narrator (wonderfully played by Ms. Ryan Woolsey), who gets things going in a sweet and conventionally nostalgic way. But the play soon starts to heat up and brim over with an originality of unvarnished authenticity stemming from its inception in those tales told and heard in hollows of the edges of the Shenandoah Valley in the early morning shadows at the base of the Blue Ridge.
The play focuses primarily on one of the approximately 600 families who lived on the Blue Ridge Mountain east of Elkton before the last of them were forced to move away in 1936.
But the play also includes several other strong characters who affect or interact with them. These include Virginia Governor Pollard (played believably bombastically by Robb Zahn), and the Rockingham County Sheriff (played counter-intuitively ̶ as a likable and compassionate man ̶ by Marty Pavlik).
A good bit of the play’s best situational humor occurs in Pavlik’s comfortably catalytic comic presence, and in that of the father & son moonshiners (played by crusty old Eric Atkins and a very bushy-bearded young Andrei McTier).
The young moonshiners warns, “Careful, it might be the law!” To which his Papa retorts, “Don’t worry, it’s just the Sheriff!“
Or that’s how I remember the lines, anyway.
But for me, the most unforgettable character actor was Phil Easley as a bee-calling, wild-honey-gathering, mountain man.
Ryan Woolsey, in a somewhat arduous role as an intermittent granny narrator, and Nita Gibson as a dying granny, also shined brightly, and all the rest of the large cast of twenty-seven also played their roles well, and remarkably believably.
The author’s sympathy is obviously with the “highlanders” who are besieged by the “flatlanders” of the surrounding area, or at least by their State and Federal governments. But Glick’s play is far from a polemic in their behalf. It acknowledges that those with land titles (some of which went back to the 18th Century) were paid for the land and homes taken from them to make the park. And it notes that some were able to find better lives off the mountain, where they finally had access to running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, paved roads, and even radios.
But a character in the play also mentions those who lost their homes and got nothing for them – and during the Depression! Glick played it fair and balanced, and resisted the temptation to make this a good vs. bad play. It is a better play for this.
Despite having been written some 25 years earlier, the play only had its first public performance in December, 2022, on the stage of Harrisonburg’s small-but-comfortable 260-seat Court Square Theater. It had a lot of help getting there.
Producer Joe Appleton and co-producer Robert Wolfe, along with Court Square’s Managing Director J. P. Giulia, deserve a lot of praise. The play’s director and script adapter, Stanley W. Swartz, skillfully trimmed Glick’s reportedly very overly long manuscript down to performable size. He also did a magnificent job of directing the all-volunteer cast of experienced amateurs working with many others who had never before performed.
There were also fiddle tunes and about a dozen songs or song excerpts well performed, along with a few dances. These all helped display the humanity and humor of the community.
With luck, “Can’t Feel At Home” may become a regional standard, great for community theaters and ambitious high schools to attempt. Why? It has a large cast, about twenty-seven or so, of both young and old, male and female, plain and beautiful. And they all kind of look like your neighbors – because they are. We rightly call this work, “John Glick’s,” and it certainly is so. But it is also the product of our extended community, much more so than most.
Dr. Glick died at age 70 on January 17, 2023, after a long illness. It was only a few weeks after the play’s first performance, and just days before its second sold-out, five-performance run.
A repeat run in the fall is promised. Let’s hope that occurs! ( A memorial service for John is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, February 4, 2023, at the Kyger Funeral Home, 3173 Spotswood Trail (U.S. Rt.33), Harrisonburg, VA 22801)
Dr. Glick’s play is a work of fiction, a work of art, and a pretty good one. As a work of theater, it is no “MacBeth” or “Hamlet,” or even, “The Importance of Being Ernest.” But it is a solid work, both entertaining and thought-provoking. And Dr. Glick’s intentions are clearly good. But since his story is fact-based, a couple of additional facts may help give a fuller understanding.
According to official records as reported in articles on the National Park Services’ website, more than 90 percent of the land purchased by the government to make Shenandoah National Park was owned by a few corporations (mostly with abandoned mineral operations or in the lumber business), along with people who had never lived on the Mountain (including a handful of very wealthy local families who controlled a huge percentage of the land).
Only about 8.95% was owned by members of the 207 resident families that had legal titles. But at least 258 other families had been living there ̶ many for several generations ̶ without any legal title. As noted in the play, only titleholders were paid. Those who had no title, including those who had lived as tenant farmers, some for generations, were not compensated, and were simply driven from their homes, which were burned immediately to prevent their use.
Glenn Logan Reitze is a former newspaper reporter and editor and has written and illustrated children’s books and poetry. He lives happily with his wife and extended family in Penn Laird VA.