Shakespeare in the Shenandoah

Travelers will find much ado in Staunton, Virginia


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Cleopatra laid her slender arm across the wooden ledge in front of me. Gold bands encircled her upper arms; long, dark curls spilled down her back from a braided bun. At her neck she wore a heavy Egyptian necklace encrusted with turquoise, bound like a collar above the low-plunging neckline of her soft gown. Her mocking eyes stared at the couple seated beside me in oak armchairs. Turning around to her ladies, she began to spit words against Marc Antony like a woman in love, desperate and defiant, fearful yet hard.

This was Shakespeare unlike anything I had experienced: fingertip close, intimate, and commanding my undivided attention. The characters drew complex words like a thread through a needle, pulling fine lines up into view and then deftly plunging them into the tapestry of a tightly woven tale. They were funny, they were tragic; they were slapstick and stinging slaps. Here at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia—where Dame Judi Dench serves on the advisory board for the American Shakespeare Center—Antony and Cleopatra was unfolding like a conversation at a lively dinner party. In a tiny wooden theater copied from Shakespeare's original, made of overhanging balustrades, iron chandeliers, and half-timbered walls, we leaned forward in our chairs as though at a table. They had us.

Shakespeare had never been so much fun. During the two intermissions, Julius Caesar took off his costume and played acoustic rock-and-roll from the balcony with his fellow thespians. The clapping, singalongs, tongue-in-cheek announcements from pillow-lounging actors, and Demetrius selling wine and M&Ms from a cart onstage reminded me that theater is supposed to be good for you. And what a bargain—it was Wednesday night, "pay what you want" in a basket by the exit. Could it get any better?
I ended up in Staunton by accident—my sister in Delaware recommended a back-roads route to Charlotte after I left her home and found I-95 to be insanely congested. Taking I-81 south, through the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, which slips through the worn Appalachians, I stopped in Staunton, four hours from Charlotte. Although the town is small—its population is less than 24,000—a local prep school and women's college give it a quirky youthfulness that is refreshing.

The sparkling Stonewall Jackson Hotel (24 South Market Street, 540-885-4848), a downtown gem from the 1920s that got its pride back two years ago after a more than $20 million renovation, made a great home base. Bright and fresh, the hotel's lobby was a pretty yellow-and-white, with gleaming terrazzo floors, potted palms, and original etched-glass chandeliers. Pink-and-green hallways led to my fourth-floor room, which was tastefully furnished and well supplied with plush towels. The theater was next door and the visitors center an elevator ride away, adjacent to the basement parking lot. A convenient location in the heart of this matchbox town, the hotel also had a friendly staff.

Before going to the theater, I walked over a stone bridge spanning a stream to the Mill Street Grill (1 Mill Street, 540-886-0656), housed in an old flour mill. A round wooden table in a corner, just a few steps from where the band was setting up, was a comfortable spot for a glass of wine and an appetizer. The ginger soy marinated ahi tuna and avocado salad was delicious paired with a glass of Foppiano Petite Sirah. Service was quick, and my waiter added a complimentary round loaf of bread with an apple-flavored butter, both made at the restaurant.

Staunton (pronounced Stanton) is a town of history. Once you've had some Shakespeare, you can jump ahead a few centuries for a little American history. Witticisms of a political bent can be found at The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library (21 North Coalter Street, 540-885-0897), just two blocks up from the Stonewall Jackson Hotel. America's twenty-eighth president was born here, and you can tour his two-story brick home and a museum about his life. A scholarly president who taught at Princeton before becoming governor of New Jersey, Wilson was known for such quips as: "I have long enjoyed the friendship and companionship of Republicans because I am by instinct a teacher, and I would like to teach them something." Elected in 1912, he navigated our country through the frightening years of World War I. Don't miss the Pierce-Arrow limousine that was waiting for him in 1919 when he returned to America after negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in France.

A good place for lunch is the Beverley Restaurant (12 East Beverley Street, 540-886-4317). Run by two sisters, it's a local favorite for breakfast, lunch, or an early dinner (it closes at 7 p.m.). The toasted pimento cheese sandwich is heavenly—the restaurant uses its own homemade bread, a dense white loaf cut into thick slices. The cinnamon-laced applesauce made from Granny Smith apples is also delicious, and there are lots of fresh vegetable selections in season, like chunks of steamed squash or sweet corn pudding. Homemade desserts line the antique buffet in the back of the restaurant; the meringue pies are the biggest I've ever seen. When I asked my waitress for a small slice of the coconut meringue pie (the most popular), she grinned and told me, "There's no such thing as a small slice."

The people of Staunton love tourists. The town has polished itself up for visitors, adding vintage-style street signs, a free trolley and walking tours, and a friendly visitors center. Art galleries and cafés populate the main streets; there are local coffee shops, numerous B&Bs in historic homes, and even an organic grocery and café started by a former dean of Mary Baldwin College, the women's school. Outlying streets are packed with fabulous homes that survived the Civil War, even when 10,000 Union soldiers destroyed the factories and mills in 1864.

The architecture alone is worth a visit. The town has been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the country's most distinctive destinations. "We're known for our architecture," Gloria Brandt, a volunteer in the visitors center, told me. A self-guided walking tour brochure provides an easy reference with black-and-white photos of homes and landmarks. If you like architecture, you'll enjoy the stately columned porches, Rapunzel-like turrets, and decorative gables of the grand homes, including the 1791 Stuart House, one of the earliest classical revival buildings in Virginia. I was there in late August, and the tiny streets were perfumed with draping vines of white jasmine, spilling over stone walls and piled like pillows across the tops of old iron fences. It wasn't hard to imagine an era of hoop skirts, afternoon strolls, parasols, and baby carriages. The town could have been in Gone with the Wind.

It's a friendly place. Outside Blue Mountain Coffees (12-B Buyers Street, 540-886-4506), at a sidewalk table under the trees, I met Jon and Alisa Berry, who were having morning coffee after dropping off their son for his first day of school. A locally owned coffee shop with attitude (the Web site address is damnfinecoffee.net), Blue Mountain brews coffee from beans roasted the previous day. I was enjoying a very fresh cup and a white-chocolate-and-peach biscotti, made by one of the customers, when I met the Berrys. They told me they had lived in Huntersville for ten years, but had moved back to Staunton this past spring to help with the family trucking business.

Since they had lived outside of Charlotte, I asked them how they would describe Staunton to their friends in the Queen City. As a town, it seemed like an unusual combination of the old and the new, from Tiffany stained-glass windows in the eighteenth-century Episcopal church to the contemporary Virginia Hot Glass Festival held in late April at a local glass-blowing studio. Jon's face lit up—he was thinking about the spectacular beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. "In Charlotte, so many people say they like the outdoors—you have to travel to the mountains to enjoy the outdoors, but here it's a way of life," he said. Alisa smiled. "In Charlotte we say, 'We have traffic jams,' and here, we have tractor jams," she added.

With that, I put down my pen and studied their satisfied faces. As I picked up my things, we said our goodbyes, and I walked away from the tree-lined sidewalk and looked up at the blue sky. My fate had been penned by the Bard: "Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer'd," Pisanio observed in Cymbeline. I had come here quite by accident, but next time, it will be by intent.

Know Before You Go 

The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton is one of only two theaters in the world to re-create Shakespeare’s original indoor theater, and hour-long playhouse tours are offered throughout the week for $5 per person.

This season’s shows are Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labours Lost, The Winter’s Tale, and Antony and Cleopatra. Select performances also offer talk backs or pre-show lectures. Plays are usually performed Wednesday-Sunday, but the schedule varies. Call 877-MUCH-ADO for specific dates and times, or visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com . The theater is at 10 South Market Street.

Ticket prices vary, but generally range from $18 to $36. True to Elizabethan tradition, tickets are available for Lords’ Chairs and Gallants’ Stools, both of which place patrons directly on the stage with the actors.

Getting there: From Charlotte, take I-77 north to exit 32/Roanoke onto I-81 north. Take exit 222 for Staunton. — Monica Jamouneau

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