Play memorializes residents displaced from Shenandoah park
A production now showing in Harrisonburg tells the story of the people who once lived in what is now Shenandoah National Park.
The play, which debuted at Court Square Theater on Dec. 1, takes its name from the Carter Family song “Can’t Feel at Home.” Written by Dr. John Glick, it memorializes the more than 450 families who were forced to leave their homes to create Shenandoah National Park.
In 1928, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Public Park Condemnation Act. During the next 10 years, the state seized the land needed for the park through eminent domain, displacing homeowners and tenants alike. Some left voluntarily; others resisted.
In the play, Douglas Alan Diehl plays a mountain resident named Wren Lamm, and Marty Pavlik plays Sheriff Bob Hansborrow.
“You know it ain't right!” Diehl shouted as Lamm.
“It ain't right, Wren, but that ain't got nothing to do with it!” Pavlik replied as Hansborrow. “It's coming, and we can't stop it. Does killing me make it right?”
“I ain't walking away from here. This is our land! Our home!”
“Wren, it belongs to the state now.”
“By whose consent!? Not mine! Since when can they take away a man's home?!”
Bobby Wolfe is one of the play's producers and a good friend of the playwright, who wrote the show in 1998.
“John Glick was a physician in the Elkton-Shenandoah area, and he treated many of the patients and their families that were displaced from the mountain to create Shenandoah National Park,” Wolfe said. “They told him stories, and he condensed all the stories into this wonderful play called ‘Can't Feel at Home.’”
Wolfe’s co-producer is Joe Appleton. Both men attended Harrisonburg High School with Glick.
“We have a number of folks in this play who have not done theater before but came and auditioned because their families were displaced, and they wanted to be involved,” Appleton said.
The show has been so highly anticipated that its entire first run is sold out. But luckily, Wolfe and Appleton have arranged for a second run Jan. 27-29.
Children of Shenandoah
The Children of Shenandoah is an organization made up of descendants of those who were displaced. It was founded by Lisa Custalow and her late husband “to continue family traditions, preserving heritage and culture for future generations with accuracy and love,” according to the group’s official Facebook page.
“My mother was born inside of what is now Shenandoah National Park — Rockingham County, on the Hightop Mountain,” Custalow said. “My Dad was from Madison County. His family was not displaced, but my mother's family was — my grandmother and my grandfather and my Mom was displaced when she was an infant.”
Glick came to one of the organization’s meetings nearly 25 years ago to tell them about the play, which he'd just written. Custalow said she and the other descendants were a bit skeptical at first. Outsiders' portrayals of the mountain residents have not always been fair or positive.
In 1933, a D.C.-based researcher published a book called "Hollow Folk ," which seemed to cherry-pick the very poorest of the mountain’s residents to study. In “The Anguish of Displacement,” Katrina Powell wrote, "the written images of poverty in ‘Hollow Folk,’ together with Farm Security Administration photographs taken in the 1930s, had a lasting effect on the country's assumptions about the mountaineer."
Custalow said that was intentional.
“There was a vested interest in the people who were determined to have the park there to depict people as negatively as they could to kind of justify what was going on,” she said.
But "Can't Feel at Home" proved to be different.
“When I finally read the script, it is just … it's like he was right there,” Custalow said. “I really think God is in control of this.”
As Wolfe put it, “He wrote it for the community to be healed — both the people that were displaced, and the people that displaced them.”
Tickets for January's shows are available at courtsquaretheater.org.