Still Going Strong | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Still Going Strong

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Courtesy Vicksburg Theatre Guild

Josh Hynum, as John Dalton, and Ashleigh Ford, as Nell Stanley, face off against William Mathews, playing the villain Richard Murgatroyd, in "Gold in the Hills."

Every year in Vicksburg, a new crop of actors don the same costumes, put up the same sets and perform the same lines that they have been proclaimed from the stage for three-fourths of a century. That dedication to "Gold in the Hills" landed Vicksburg in the world record books—the 1992 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records mentions the play in the "Longest Runs" section, as playing "discontinously but every season since 1936," putting it alongside hits like "The Mousetrap" and "A Chorus Line." This summer, the Vicksburg Theatre Guild performs its 76th season of J. Frank Davis' play "Gold in the Hills."

Set in the 1890s New York Bowery, Davis' play tells the story of an evil villain, Richard Murgatroyd, who finds out about the oil underneath the Stanley family farm. Eager to attain the title to the farm and become rich off the oil, he attempts to seduce Nell Stanley, the young daughter, into a marriage agreement. But good eventually overcomes evil.

Besides being the world's longest-running play, "Gold in the Hills" is a long-standing family tradition in Vicksburg. "My son and daughters have represented the third generation in the family, and my brother and his family represent three generations," Walter Johnston Jr. Says.

This year, Johnston is the associate producer of "Gold in the Hills." But in 1965, he first became involved with the play acting as the hero, John Dalton. Since then, Johnston has played various other characters, never ceasing his devotion to the show.

Often, parent and child, sister and brother and so on are cast in the same season of the play. Many actors are even descendants of the original cast.

For a play that has been running for so long, the Vicksburg community never seems to get tired of it. Audience members who have attended the play for years, often acting in it themselves from time to time, know the lines by heart—and outbursts are encouraged. "I think that's the key to this show ... audience participation," Johnston says. "They can respond to the various lines with cheers and boos. They can anticipate some of the lines. Holler out comments. What makes this show fun to do is the audience. The audience is the show."

The cast is always different. "We have multiple people playing multiple parts so rarely do we always have an identical cast from show to show," Johnston says. And, though the Vicksburg Theatre Guild stays mostly true to the original script, they've added entertainment pieces like can-can girls and singing and dancing waiters.

Johnston thinks "Gold in the Hills" is unique because of its wholesomeness. "We offer good, clean family entertainment and we enjoy doing the show—hopefully as much as people coming to see it."

Due to its place in the record books, "Gold in the Hills" demands recognition around the world and attracts all sorts of viewers. "We've had people from all over the world and certainly from all over the United States," Johnston says. "I believe we had someone from Australia, actually."

"Gold in the Hills" 2012 is July 20-21 and 27-28 at the Vicksburg Theatre Guild (101 Iowa Avenue, Vicksburg). All shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, seniors and students. $5 for children. Call 601-636-0471 or visit http://www.vicksburgtheatreguild.com.

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