January 10, 2015 11:21PM
By NANCY LAVIN
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — The wassail was free-flowing and the meat freshly carved, but for many of the diners at Saturday’s Peasants’ Feast, the meal was bittersweet.
In between bites of food and bouts of laughter, community members recalled their favorite moments and memories from the Chorus of Westerly’s “A Celebration of Twelfth Night,” which puts on its final performance tonight after a fabled 40-year run.
Like most of the other attendees at Saturday’s performances, Hamden, Conn., residents Sheldon and Nancy Campbell said the annual production has become a beloved tradition for them.
“It’s an extraordinary thing,” Sheldon Campbell said. “The story is extraordinary, the music is incredible.”
“It’s an integration of all the arts at its best,” his wife Nancy Campbell chimed in. “And this year’s show was just remarkable.”
After 25 years attending the Epiphany-themed production, the couple said this year’s show proved particularly emotional, knowing it would be the last.
“Every year we get kind of teary,” Sheldon Campbell explained. “But this year, especially so.”
Alex Bettridge, another audience member, remembered her own role in the performance when she was a child.
“What was I? I don’t remember, I was like six years old,” Bettridge said to her mother, Kitty McVitty, as they munched on rolls prepared and served by chorus members.
Her mother didn’t recall, but reassured her, “you looked cute and you did a really good job.”
After a long hiatus, the two returned for the final production on Saturday afternoon, which included all the laughs, tears and spectacular performances they remembered from years past.
McVitty named a wolf as her favorite character from this year, though she recalled a trio of elderly women who portrayed three French hens in a past production as especially noteworthy. McVitty said the community spirit that the show symbolizes is as important as the performance itself.
“I always think of this as a big party for Westerly-Pawcatuck,” she explained. “Everyone here knows somebody in the show, or has been in the show, or has been coming for years and years.”
Elsa Hahn planned to see the Saturday evening performance directly following the feast, marking the first time the Westfield, N.J., resident had sat in the audience since the show’s first production 40 years ago.
“I’m excited to see how it’s changed, and how it’s stayed the same,” she said.
Continuing in the tradition started by the late Anne Utter, a new script for the production is written every year, centered around a European-court rendition of the last of the twelve days of Christmas. The classic good-versus-evil storyline features new characters and twists each year.
“When I came last time, my mother was the queen,” Hahn recalled, referring to an audience-member role that is awarded at each performance. “I want to be the queen this time, to follow in her footsteps. And I’ve been practicing.”
Observing her friend’s regal wave with amusement, chorus member Marty Minich said she thought Hahn a worthy queen. Reflecting on her own 30 years with the chorus, Minich said she was both sad and hopeful about the final performance.
“I’ve always loved ‘Twelfth Night,’ and I will miss it, no doubt. But after 40 years, it’s time to try something different,” she said.
What that “something different” will be remains unknown, but it will definitely involve vocal performance, according to Dan Van Winkle, former president and a current member of the chorus.
“We’re going to do other things that are more our focus, which is singing, for a while,” he said.
And under the direction Music Director Andrew Howell and Executive Director Ryan Saunders, the possibilities are numerous.
“There’s no doubt that this relatively new leadership is going to bring good things,” said Tim Dreher, a 17-year chorus member and Pawcatuck resident. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
For those with tickets to one of the remaining shows, the most urgent order of business was their final farewell to Father Christmas. Two performances are scheduled for 2 and 6 p.m. today, with a second and final Peasants’ Feast in between.
Both shows are sold out, but waiting-list spots can be reserved by calling 401-596-8663.