Meet 'Ivy Rowe'

Show to benefit new HART stage
By Stina Sieg | Jun 18, 2012
Photo by: Donated photo Barbara Bates Smith has been playing the titular character in "Ivy Rowe" across the country since 1989. She'll bring the old Appalachian lady back to HART this Friday and Saturday, as a fundraiser for the theater company's new stage.

When we deeply connect with someone, it can be hard to know where we end that other person begins. Was that my opinion or his? Was that her memory or mine? The line between friend and alter ego can get blurry.

It turns out that’s even true when your friend is imaginary. For the last 23 years, actress Barbara Bates Smith has been playing mountain woman Ivy Rowe in a production of the same name. Though she never expected it, the one-woman show has become the through line of her life.

Smith, who now lives in Crabtree, has performed “Ivy Rowe” more than 600 times since she debuted the play in 1989. Of course it’s been more than just a job. As she put it, the character has stuck with her in ways she may never understand.

“The way it seems to be is that ‘Ivy Rowe’ took on a life of its own, of her own,” she said, “and I’ve just been following after it.”

This week, Miss Ivy is taking her to HART. The show, in which the character looks back on her long life, will be at 7:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, with a 3 p.m. matinee also on Saturday.

This latest string of performances is a real homecoming for Smith, who first performed the show locally at HART in 1998. Back then, the production was a fundraiser for the Performing Arts Center, where HART now holds all its Main Stage shows. This time around, Smith’s performances will benefit HART’s latest endeavor — a second stage, which will allow productions to run concurrently during the theater company’s season.

Smith is happy to lend a hand. She gushed about HART’s executive director, Steven Lloyd, calling him “amazing” and certainly deserving of more space. She’s been to theaters all over, she explained, but she’s never seen someone do as much, and as well, as Lloyd.

“I’m sure there is nothing like this anywhere in the country,” she said.

Part of her admiration for Lloyd is that, while he has some help, he creates so much on his own. Smith, who usually only shares the stage with musician Jeff Sebens, is a kindred spirit. Like Lloyd, she has been manifesting her own destiny in the theater world for years, though she does make sure to talk up the people who’ve helped make it possible. As Smith is always eager to say, “Ivy Rowe” was adapted from “Fair and Tender Ladies,” a novel by Lee Smith, who isn’t kin to Barbara but might as well be. They’ve been connected for years, and Barbara has even played many of Lee’s other characters. The actor can’t seem to say enough lovely things about the writer’s ability to spin a yarn.

“That’s why ‘Ivy Rowe’ is my signature, because I’ve done it over and over, and it’s so rich,” she said.

Audiences know it, too. Part of the play’s draw is that while it deals with the life of one woman born at the turn of the century, it also speaks of Appalachian history in general. So many topics are covered, from the importance of railroads to the advent of electricity to the conflict in Vietnam. Ivy Rowe is there to see it all.

“So, you’ve got the wars, you’ve got what happens with the mining, what’s happening with the country,” Smith said. “Everything comes into it. Everything.”

And then you’ve got Ivy Rowe herself. Smith lovingly calls the old woman “crusty,” but also brags on her humor. While it might be hard to believe, Smith never gets tired of Ivy. She still loves her after all these years, which not everyone can say about a relationship that has spanned more than two decades.
Being in the play “both grounds me — because it’s so earthy and she’s so real — and it lifts me up,” Smith said.

Not only are she and Ivy still friends, but their friendship is still deepening. Smith believes that the “Ivy Rowe” of today is a mellower piece that it was when she first started performing it, and that the character is still evolving. So, in a sense, Ivy isn’t imaginary but is a living being, and will continue to be as long as Smith keeps bringing her life.

That could be a long while yet. Smith actually gets antsy if she hasn’t done “Ivy Rowe” in a few months and is always eager to introduce her to new audiences. She doesn’t want that desire to wear off. She can’t imagine it ever could.

“I want to keep — I almost need to keep — doing it,” she said.

Here’s to her and Ivy’s next 23 years together.

“Ivy Rowe” will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at HART, 250 Pigeon St. in Waynesville. For tickets, call 456-6322. To learn more about Smith and her work, visit www.barbarabatessmith.com.

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