Cheever returns with a story about a changing world

Cheever Meaders’ name is synonymous with famous folk pottery, but the play based in part on his life tells a story about much more.

Cheever returns to the Sautee Nacoochee Center Theatre next week after demand from its initial run last year. Written by Emory Jones and directed by Kathy Blandin, the play’s cast also returns with Bill Gabelhausen as Cheever, Linda Erbele as Arie, and Tyler Dale as John Burrison. Music is provided by Debbielee Whelchel.

The setting is an imagined meeting between Burrison and Meaders. Burrison, a professor, visits the rural pottery shop to interview and learn from Meaders.

“It’s a play, but it’s filled with stories,” says Jones. “It’s not about making pottery. That’s just a setting.

At the time of the fictitious meeting, practical demand is fading for pottery like that Meaders spent much of his life creating.

“At its heart is a man who lives long enough to see his life’s work become obsolete,” Blandin says. “If that were to happen to me, I don’t think I would respond in the same way Cheever does in his life. I think I’d be a bitter, older person. Yet, he doesn’t respond that way. He still has a zest for life.”

It’s a story of changing times and how people are faced with adapting.

“I think everybody can respond to that,” Blandin says.

Gabelhausen says he came out of retirement after about 25 years last go-round for the opportunity to portray Cheever Meaders, and he’s glad to be a part of another production.

“If it was something different, another show, I would have been very hesitant, but I didn’t have to think twice about going back to him.”

As he learned of the potter, Gabelhausen sought to find a bridge between himself and Meaders.

“It was how passionate he was about what he did and wanting it to survive,” he says. “I also found a lot of comfort in his life experience and connection to family. Whenever he speaks about his wife, or his brothers or his sisters or his children, it helped me to find his humanity – and not just this kind of old, sometimes cranky, sometimes funny potter.

“I didn’t want to create a caricature. I wanted to pay homage to the man.”

In the end, he says he felt proud of what the cast presented and was touched by the kind words from members of the Meaders family who came to watch.

Erbele, who potrays Meaders’ wife, Arie, said the play shares an important part of the area’s history, with parallels to today’s times. And the chance to tell the story once more drew her back to the stage.

Erbele says she channeled her Tennessee grandmother in playing the role.

“I didn’t have to think twice about it at all. I was thankful (to return),” she says. “I hope I can do Arie more justice this time than last.”

Erbele says it’s a joy getting to work with Gabelhausen again.

“And its fun getting back to my Appalachian roots”

There are some changes from the Cheever audiences saw last year, Blandin says. One of those is the opening scene showing the accident Meaders had as a child, causing him to break and lose function in one of his arms. However, the story will be set up by the real John Burrison, who agreed to record a speaking part to open the play.

“It’s really a nice touch to have his real voice from now on,” Jones says.

The playwright points out how local history is woven into the story, along with a faithfulness to set design, helping the play carry “the spirit of White County in it.”

“You don’t have to know anything about pottery to see this play,” Jones says. “It’s about people.”

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The opening is scheduled for Thursday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m., followed by performances Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. A 4 p.m. showing is planned for Sunday, April 28.

Tickets are $18 for SNCA members, $21 for non-members and $10 for children (16 and under). For tickets and information, call 706-878-3300 or visit www.snca.org.

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