WHEELING – When most people hear the term “locally grown” they think of food and other agricultural products produced near their homes. At the Towngate Theater at the Oglebay Institute, he refers to the thousands of theater makers who discover their passions, develop their skills and cultivate their talents through local community theater.
Tom Stobart, one of Wheeling’s most gifted writers, was “one of the first local talents to be created in Towngate,” according to Oglebay Institute performing arts director Tim Thompson. He was raised and educated in Wheeling. He cut his teeth at Towngate under the guidance of his mentor, Towngate founder Hal O’Leary. Most of his plays center on places, people and personal experiences of life in his hometown.
He was an original Parcel Player (Towngate’s summer youth theater program) and was in Towngate’s first season in the 1970s “Absence of a Cello,” according to Thompson. He went on to appear in over 100 local plays and musicals, and wrote 17 one-act and six plays.
Many of his plays were performed at Towngate from the late 1970s to the 1990s. His play “In Terminal Decline” held Towngate’s box office record for many years. A revival of the show was staged at Towngate in 2015 to sold-out crowds. His plays have been produced in Pittsburgh, Columbus, New York, Los Angeles and Japan. He was also well known in the Wheeling community – and around the world – as the owner of Paradox, an eclectic second-hand bookstore in Wheeling Center.
Stobart passed away in August 2020. Towngate is celebrating his life and legacy by dedicating the 2021-22 season to him on the main stage and directing three of his plays. Sponsored by Unified Bank, the season kicks off today, Friday September 17th, with two of Stobart’s one-act plays – “Ever After” and “The Strap”. He ends in May with his full-length piece “Under the Bridge to the Stars”.
Both acts focus on the complications of love and romantic relationships. In “Ever After”, a lonely middle-aged man and a troubled young woman pass from casual acquaintances to inseparable lovers. However, they find it difficult to understand the definition of love for the other. “The Strap” follows a romantic but volatile relationship. A couple become hopelessly – and comically – entangled in a web of arguments triggered by a broken handbag strap. All the action and props are mimed. Amanda Leigh and Wayne McCord perform “Ever After”. Jamie Hamilton and Sarah Hamilton perform “The Strap”. PD Gregg directs.
Thompson said both pieces allow viewers to reflect on when they loved and lost, as well as how misunderstandings and arguments – sometimes over the dumbest things – can destroy relationships. And they’re written with “just enough humor not to get too discouraged.”
“His plays are excellent – beautifully written and all have entertaining and stimulating themes,” said Thompson. “We want people who have never seen one of his pieces to discover his brilliant handwriting and for those who need to revisit his work.”
“We thought there was no better way to commemorate Tom than to present several of his plays this season,” said Gregg. “Most of Tom’s works are thinly veiled autobiographies. Knowing his pieces is knowing him and vice versa.
He added: “Tom’s incredible ear for dialogue and the universal themes he deals with make his plays extremely accessible and relevant even years after writing them.”
“Ever After” and “The Strap” will be staged over two weekends, September 17, 18 and 19 and September 24 and 25. Evening performances take place at 8 p.m. each of those days, with the exception of Sunday, September 19, when a morning performance takes place at 3 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased in advance at www.oionline.com or by calling 304-242-7700. Tickets can also be purchased at the door, if available. The ticket office opens one hour before the curtain.
The Towngate Theater is in the historic Wheeling Central Market district. This church-turned-theater is one of several venues in Wheeling operated by the non-profit Oglebay Institute. Other OI facilities include: the Stifel Fine Arts Center and National Highway Dance School, the Mansion Museum, the Glass Museum, and the Schrader Environmental Education Center in Oglebay.
In addition to community theater, Towngate offers children’s theater, ballet, improv comedy and live music. Towngate is also a one-screen cinema, offering movies on select nights and showcasing changing art exhibits in the Towngate Gallery. Theater classes are also offered year round.
“Preserving our past of the Oglebay Institute; The “Create Your Future” fundraising campaign is currently underway and funds raised will help address core Institute priorities, including roof replacement and structural preservation at Towngate.
For more information on ways to give, visit www.OIonline.com/capitalcampaign or contact OI’s Director of Development, Micah Underwood, at 304-242-4200.