This article is © 2003 the Times-World Corp.

   Monday, January 20, 2003 

  'Medicine, Man' 
 Roanoke native's play revolves around a family coping with illness on the day of a big NASCAR race 


  Jeffrey Stanley was on edge. 

     He's an experienced playwright whose work has been praised in the pages of The New York Times and other big-name journals. But this summer he was back home in Roanoke, doing a first  read-through of a play loosely inspired by his family and his hometown - "Medicine, Man," the comic tale of a family coping with the illness of its matriarch on the day of a big NASCAR race. 

     He'd asked his brother, Steve, to sit in on the workshop session at Roanoke's Mill Mountain Theatre. About halfway through, Steve took Jeff aside. 

     "There's a problem with the play," Steve whispered to his brother, urgency in his voice. 

     Worried thoughts flashed through Jeff's mind. Was Steve upset with portrayal of the family? Was this going to cause hard feelings?

     Then Steve explained Jeff's error: "The Pepsi 400 is a night race." 

     Ah. Jeff's script had the big stock-car race going on in the afternoon. Now that was something simple to fix. 

     The past few months, Jeff Stanley has been paying attention to little details, because he knows they add up and decide whether the play will ring true - especially for a Roanoke audience, which can see the play when it makes its world premiere Tuesday on Mill Mountain's Main Stage. 

     These things may not be important if the play moves on to another city, Stanley says, but "right now we sort of have a tough audience." 

     The play is full of local references. There's Happy's Flea Market, the Texas Tavern and even an oblique nod to Smith Mountain Lake (a physician who's new to the area tracks down a fellow doctor at his condo "on big lake around here somewhere.") 

     The play was cast in New York City, so Stanley has tried to help the actors get a feel for local  accents and local flavor by taking them on field trips to Happy's, Little Graceland, the Mill Mountain Star, the Blue Ridge Parkway, even the NASCAR room at the home shared by his sister and her racing-captivated boyfriend. 

     "It's going to be as close to authentic as we can get it," Stanley says. 

     Sean Hayden, who plays the main character, Calvin Barker, had never heard of (much less drunk) a red-eye, that hangover-soothing mixture of beer and tomato juice. Stanley made sure that Hayden was introduced to the concoction. 

     In the same spirit, Stanley and the cast have tried to make sure they get their medical references right. Stanley and Janelle Schremmer, who plays Dr. Sue Morrison, have spent time at Carilion hospitals in Roanoke, chatting with nurses and doctors and simply sitting and observing in intensive-care waiting rooms. 

     That was important, because much of the play takes place in a waiting room. Calvin, a hard-working, hard-drinking machinist, finds his hopes for a race-day celebration disintegrate when he discovers his mother, Ola Mae, in a coma on the floor of her home. 

     Thrown into the mix are the young, ambitious Dr. Morrison, money-grubbing Preacher Bobby (George Hosmer) and Swimmer (Bev Appleton), a Cherokee shaman who walks through walls. Calvin must fend with them and others over the fate of his mother, who can't speak for herself. The idea for the play came from the death of Stanley's grandmother, Ethel Ferguson of Vinton, who passed away three years ago at age 83. 

     The play, directed by Jere Hodgin, is the second Stanley script to be produced by Mill Mountain. Two years ago, Mill Mountain staged "Tesla's Letters," a wartime drama set in the former Yugoslavia. "Tesla" opened off-Broadway in 1999 and was named one of that year's five best new dramas. Schremmer played the lead when "Tesla" came to Roanoke. 

     While "Tesla" was political and had a global sense of scale and importance, "Medicine, Man" covers a smaller terrain. Nonetheless, both plays are ultimately about families dealing with the death of a loved one. 

     In "Medicine, Man," the setting just happens to be Roanoke, and Stanley knows that the story of pain and family won't be believable here if Roanoke comes off as a "generic Southern-esque" locale. He grew up in Roanoke and Roanoke County and graduated from high school in Vinton, so he knows that Roanoke is a singular place. Even when people are dealing with universal themes, they do it in a way that reflects the local culture and history. 

     "It's a play about people I grew up with and people I love," Stanley says. "It's a little bit of a love letter to Roanoke." 
     "Medicine, Man" runs Tuesday -Feb. 2. For more information, check out or call 540/342-5740.


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