August 7, 2008

Witch Surfaces to Tell Her Story in Performance


By Sandra J. Barker



"The year was 1706 and the place was the Princess Anne County Courthouse, located in the Lynnhaven Parish just a few miles from here."

The opening line from a new production titled "The Witch of Pungo," sets the stage for a true story from local history.

Steps from the Norwegian Lady Statue and the Naval Aviation Monument Park on the Oceanfront at 25th Street, an ensemble cast and crew spin the tale of Grace Sherwood three nights a week throughout the summer.

An original musical score, drama and even a touch of humor capture the story of Grace Sherwood, her trial, conviction and ducking for witchcraft, in a free, 25-minute performance.

A 7-foot screen spans the length of a black stage with a small wooden boat at each end. As breezes blow in from the ocean and an occasional jet screams overhead, four actors dressed in black with red capes set the mood. Kneeling in front of stained glass windows projected on the background , they chant a brief Latin prayer set in a minor-key.

Opposite the stage one recent Saturday, a couple dozen people are seated on folding chairs and several others pulled up on bicycles to watch. Lured by the lights and music, the audience sometimes swells to more than 100 people, said lighting/sound technician Conrad Stock.

The chanting ends, lights brighten the stage and a depiction of the Lynnhaven River appears on the screen. A tune called, "In Those Days," explains some of the 18th- century beliefs that made an accusation and conviction of witchcraft possible.

A dramatic courtroom scene includes a frenetic song, "Madness, Mayhem, Malevolence," which leads to a conviction and the infamous ducking of Sherwood.

Gary Spell, writer, composer and co-producer of the show, chose a musical "to convey the ambiance of the whole story," he said.

Kelly Whitesel plays Sherwood. Joshua Nicholson plays the judge. Carrie Neely and Tory Helgeson , are witnesses and narrators. All but Neely graduated from Regent University with master's degrees in fine arts.

"I thought it was a remarkable performance," said Steve MacDonald, who, with his wife, Joanne, visited recently from Pennsylvania. Virginia Beach resident Susan Clever said she made a trip to the Oceanfront to see the show .

"The music is grand and the blend of voices was great," she said. "It's amazing what they do with just a projector and actors."

Bobby Mellati, former program director for Beachevents, which provides free entertainment at the Oceanfront , said: "Telling stories about who we are and where we come from, I think that's what people crave when they come and visit as tourists. They want to know, 'Who are these people in Virginia Beach?' This is our story," he said.

"The major theme of the show is that ignorance produces fear," said Derek Leonidoff, director and co-producer.

"I think that truth is captured in the thought-provoking words at the end, 'More so than all the evils, please save us from ourselves. Grant us that we may see the world through the eyes of grace.' "

Sandra Barker, [email protected]


What "The Witch of Pungo"

Where Oceanfront at 25th Street

When 8:30, 9:15 and 10 p.m., Fridays through Sundays

through Aug. 29

Cost Free

Info Call 427-5097 or visit online at

Originally published by BY SANDRA J. BARKER.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.