Love, Lies and Murder: The Tom Dooley Project returns to Statesville
BY HALEY JONES
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Tom Dooley’s trial and execution in Statesville.
To commemorate this anniversary, local community members will present an encore presentation of “The Tom Dooley Project.”
The performance includes selected scenes from the play “Tom Dooley, a Wilkes County Legend,” which was written by Karen Reynolds and performed as an outdoor drama in Wilkes County.
“The Tom Dooley Project” has been adapted, with Reynold's permission, to portray Laura Foster’s murder, Dooley’s entanglement with Ann Melton and how the real-life drama ended in Statesville. The play will run from May 2-6 at the historic Iredell County Courthouse, including a matinee on the final day.
Cathy Cash, station manager of WAME Radio and coordinator of the project, promises not only more days, but more scenes:
“We’re excited to present more shows, more music, and more of the story,” said Cash. “We’re part of a folk tale. Although (Tom’s story) started in Wilkes County, it ended right here in Statesville.”
The play features local talent with almost all actors returning to their roles. One new cast member is Angel Johnston, educational program coordinator at Iredell Museums. She will portray Laura Foster, one of Dooley’s love interests.
“I'm excited to be a part of retelling Statesville's history! I have a history degree and work at the Museum, so I always want to make history fun and interesting,” said Johnston. “I'm definitely not an expert in the Tom Dooley story, but I've loved learning about it and about Laura's story. I think it…resonates with people.”
Johnston, who is drawing on her theatre and singing background from high school, admits to being a bit nervous about her debut as Laura Foster.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she conceded. “But I'm a little nervous about screaming bloody murder every night.”
Other characters include Ann Melton, Dooley’s childhood sweetheart who was married to a prominent older man, but still continued on her affair with Tom.
Melton will be played again by Melissa Marion.
“I am looking forward to returning this year,” said Marion. “The cast, as a whole, has such a great time working together.”
Marion brought attention to the efforts Cash has put forth to bring Reynolds’ play from Wilkesboro to Statesville much like the way the trial found itself moving from Wilkesboro to Statesville.
“I have really enjoyed learning more about the story of Tom Dooley and all the different perspectives on what really happened 150 years ago. My 91-year-old grandmother grew up in Yadkinville; she remembers hearing about the legend of Tom Dooley,” Marion said. “The role of Ann Melton is really challenging for me. She has such a bold personality and doesn't let anyone get in her way. I'm looking forward to the scenes that were added this year that really leave you questioning who really killed Laura Foster and if there were many [individuals] involved.”
With the love, the lies, and the murder revolving around the story, playing the role of Tom Dooley must be quite tasking. According to Matt Aschbrenner, after playing Dooley last year, he feels sorry for the character.
“Knowing the story and now portraying the role of Tom Dooley, I feel sorry for the guy,” admitted Aschbrenner. “He is a product of his own poor decisions and because of the three women involved in his life, he was pulled in three different directions.”
Aschbrenner laid out the love triangle: “Dooley is deeply in love with Ann Melton and wants to be nowhere else but in her arms. But once he found out she was married to James Melton, he needed companionship and started seeing Laura Foster, whom he got pregnant. And so in an attempt to do right by her, he committed to take care of her and his child. He was also intimately involved with Perline (Anne’s housemaid), and only God knows what he was thinking when it came to being with her.”
“But all of us can relate to that scenario, can’t we?” suggested Aschbrenner.
Aschbrenner expressed his appreciation for the community’s support for the project. He also shared the sentiments of fellow cast members by expressing how he is of Cindy Adkins for continuing her role as Tom Dooley’s mother this year. Adkins has been battling breast cancer.
Another attraction of The Tom Dooley Project is the live music, featuring Wicker and Jones, as well as Third Creek Bluegrass.The songs, played between various scenes of the production, emphasize the feelings of the play and the characters’ predicaments. Music will range from traditional folk and bluegrass to Piedmont blues and gospel.
“The music makes the story,” said Cash, who acknowledged that the music is not period music but a range of songs that help tell the story. “To me, the play, the room, the music -- it’s the combination of it all that is just magical.”
A portion of the proceeds from the Tom Dooley Project will benefit The Sharpe House and Preservation Statesville. Presenting sponsors of the project include The Statesville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and All American Stage, Sound, Lights; other sponsors include Sky Mountain Craft Beverage Company.
Performances begin at 8 p.m. on May 2-5 and 3 p.m. on May 6. Tickets are on sale at www.tomdooleyproject.com. Tickets are $15.
The Sharpe House will host a BBQ dinner on the lawn of the historic property on May 2-5 from 6 to 7:30 p.m., before the play. The Sharpe House was the home of Statesville’s first mayor, who served his first term during Dooley’s trial. Tickets can be purchased at www.tomdooleyproject.com/bbq. Tickets are $20. Site manager, Keith Rhyne, requires reservations to be made by May 3 by calling or texting 704-682-7508.