Review: “That Book Woman” gives educational and entertaining view into Ky. history

Published 4:00 pm Friday, July 5, 2024

“That Book Woman” made its world debut on the stage of Pioneer Playhouse on July 2, a play that gives a peek back in time to a piece of Kentucky history: the pack horse librarians.

These librarians were women who distributed books throughout Appalachia on horses as part of the United States Works Progress Administration, an organization that gave jobs to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

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Set in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky during the height of the Great Depression, the play centers on a packhorse librarian named Julia Miller (played by Mari Blake) who forms a connection with a farmer named John Crownover (played by Lewis Wright), and his four children, Cal (Warner Wiles), Lark (Aaliyah Love), Nate (Oliver Wiles), and Dollie (Reia Frey), and their Granny (Rita Hight).

“That Book Woman” is based on the children’s book of the same name, authored by Pioneer Playhouse’s Managing Director Heather Henson. The stage adaptation was written by Holly Hepp-Galvan, as part of the playhouse’s Kentucky Voices program. Original plays as part of the program often celebrate Kentucky history.

Miller’s role goes beyond just delivering books. She helps Crownover get the resources he needs for a legal fight against the shady businessman Aaron Thompson (played by Kevin Reams), who is trying to take their land for a coal mine.

Along the way, Miller teaches Cal the value of books. At first, Cal doesn’t like books and gets annoyed by his sister Lark teaching their siblings.

“That Book Woman” entertains audiences by weaving a captivating story that also illuminates the importance of literacy and the Depression-era struggles of rural America. Side-plots have creative pay-offs in the struggle of the Crownover family.

One subplot involves Miller trying to save the local library from closing. In rural towns of the time, makeshift libraries would be built by the locals and would not have much money for books, so books would be donated from people around the country.

The play features a nice blend of comic relief throughout the story, with the young kids creating some chaos and Granny being the main source of laughs.

Each actor, young and old, gave excellent performances. Some clever use of blocking and lighting provides dynamic scenes throughout the show.

The playhouse itself is the perfect stage for this type of show, as the open air, forest backdrop, and sounds of nature help immerse you into the world of “That Book Woman.”

Showings of “That Book Woman” at Pioneer Playhouse will run through July 20. The play runs nightly from Tuesdays through Saturdays, starting at 8:30 p.m. with an optional 7:30 p.m. dinner.