Valley Actor-Playwright Introduces Audiences to ‘People Along the Way’
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Terry Shears’ play “People Along the Way” is autobiographical but almost anyone can relate to it.
The veteran Youngstown actor wrote the play about five years ago as a way of tying together stories he had compiled about the people who helped shape his identity.
Shears will play the lead role of Joe, the central character who serves as narrator, in the Youngstown Playhouse’s production of the play, which opens a two-weekend run on Friday, April 22, in the Moyer Room.
In “People,” Joe is given the opportunity to revisit his past and answer the question, “Were the ‘good old days’ really the way I remember them?”
Starring in a play that he wrote about his own life is a strange and occasionally wrenching experience for Shears.
“It’s tough to relive some of these scenes,” he said. “Some of them still get me. I’ll get a visceral reaction to things from years ago that were painful or joyful and relive them [on stage].
“I’ve realized that some of those wounds are still pretty fresh, and some of the joys, too.”
In addition to Shears, there are five others in the cast who each play multiple roles: Denise Sculli, Connie Cassidy, Brian Suchora, Jason Green and Brandon Donaldson.
“The actors are stretched to the limit and I think they love it,” Shears said. “They get to transform into someone else every 15 minutes.”
The play’s run in the Playhouse’s Moyer Room will be the second time it has been performed. “People” premiered about four years ago at Selah Dessert Theater in Struthers.
Mary Ruth Lynn, director of that theater, was the person along the way that urged Shears to write the play.
“It started as a bunch of Facebook posts I wrote about quirky and interesting people who had passed through my experiences,” Shears said. “I did one a day for a number of weeks. Mary Ruth saw them and said I should do something with them.”
Shears considered it but put the idea aside until Lynn again asked him about it a year later. “There is something there,” she told Shears. This time, he sat down and started writing.
“It fell together in less than a week,” he said. “People have really loved it.”
Lynn recalled how she felt when she read Shears’ Facebook posts.
“The stories were engaging,” she said. “Some were humorous, some emotional, some historical, and all of them drew me into the lives of people I had never met but who had helped form a man that many of us in the theater community know.
“I was so surprised when he wrote about his father, who had been paralyzed by polio, and how that impacted his family and his respect for both of his parents.”
Lynn knew that Shears’ stories could be adapted to the stage and encouraged him to assemble them into a play.
“After a long wait, he handed me a draft,” she said. “The rest is history.”
Lynn said audiences at Selah were very receptive to the play. “Some of our regulars liked it so much that they are going to see the Playhouse production,” she said.
Maria Petrella-Ackley is directing the play. The co-founder of Black Sheep Players in Sharon, Pa., she last appeared at the Playhouse in a 2017 mainstage production of “August: Osage County.” This is her directorial debut at the Playhouse.
Ackley did not see the Selah production and had no preconceived notions as to how to present Shears’ play.
“The actors… play characters of many different ages and from different time periods,” she said. “The twist is that these people are now interacting with [Joe] in the present, recounting to him parts of his life he may or may not have remembered or known.”
The premise, she said, posed challenges in how to tell the story but Ackley was eager to tackle them.
“I am always drawn to plays that are somewhat nontraditional in structure,” she said. “My goal as a director is to tell the playwright’s story in an authentic way, to communicate clearly to the cast and crew what my vision is to make that happen, and present something to the audience that allows them to reach their own understanding of what we are doing. These talented actors, technical wizards and I may have figured it out.”
As Joe, the narrator, Shears ties all of the characters together.
“I stress to the audience that this could be you,” he said. “You know these people.”
The play delivers lots of laughs. “Some of the characters are hysterically funny and some will bring a tear to your eye,” Shears said.
He gave examples of the disparate characters and how the multiple roles stretch each actor’s range.
Cassidy plays a 10-year-old girl who is bullied, a 40-something mom with issues and a professor battling cancer. Green plays a Cornish miner from the 1850s, a fifth-grade teacher and a hillbilly type.
Shears said his play will strike a chord with baby boomers. “But anyone who knows one and wants to understand what that generation is all about will love it,” he said.
While “People” causes Shears to relive some painful moments, at least he won’t be in real pain like he was a few weeks ago when he performed in another play at Selah while dealing with a painful case of shingles.
The worst is over and the skin blotches, which were on his face, have mostly cleared up.
“I just did ‘The Gin Game’ [at Selah] and it just about did me in,” he said. “It was the most painful experience to go through. [The disease] is so draining.”
With “the show must go on” spirit, Shears completed the run of the show, often in severe discomfort and with his face marred by the rash.
“[The blotches] were on the side of my face and head, of all places,” he said. “I’d be in a performance and a shooting pain would go up my jaw and up my head.”
His fellow actors could see the pain on his face, and know he was having an attack right on stage, he said.
“People Along the Way” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 22, 23, 29 and 30; and 2:30 p.m. April 24 and May 1. Tickets are $18 ($15 for students, seniors and military), including fees. Call 330 788 8739 or go to youngstownplayhouse.org. Tickets can also be purchased at the DeYor Performing Arts Center box office.’
Pictured at top: Terry Shears wrote and stars in “People Along the Way.” He is shown on the set during a rehearsal.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.