Rising From The Ashes

Marcia McGreevy Lewis


© Copyright 2023 byMarcia McGreevy Lewis

Photo by Ann Richard at Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by Ann Richard at Wikimedia Commons.

I had trepidation this year. I’ve been going to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, for 33 years and was fearful that this brilliant event was about to become a desperate failure. My group of twelve faithful attendees didn’t consider attending during COVID, and the festival shared our concerns by shutting down, perhaps permanently.
When this world-class theater attempted to resume in 2023, supporters received frantic letters for help. The situation seemed even more distressed when staff left and the number of projected plays decreased. Restaurants and shops closed in this the village of Ashland dependent on the festival goers for survival. The wolf of winter truly bit when it inflicted COVID on this brilliant community.
Regardless, our steadfast group resolved to attend this summer. Since we’d been together, we longed to see each other. This group has accompanied me over the many amusing years we’ve indulged in Shakespeare’s grief, romance and hilarity.
When I moved from California almost 40 years ago, my friends and I devised a plan to meet every summer in Ashland, halfway between Washington and California. And we have—every summer except during COVID. They are friends who grieved with me at my husband’s passing and ultimately accepted my new “beau.” Good friends are like that.
Though it takes eight hours with a lunch stopover, driving from Seattle to Ashland in southern Oregon is a delight in summertime. Mt. Rainier rules the horizon when driving south. Stopping there is a great side trip, especially if one takes the Crystal Mountain diversion. The view from Crystal of Rainier’s emerald green fields striped with cottony white snow against an azure sky is dazzling. There’s also a brand new obstacle course where you can dart among lofty Douglas firs at Crystal’s Flying Raven Adventure Course.
There are additional appealing diversions.  The Nisqually Flats are excellent viewing sites for Great Blue Herons and other intriguing birds. Great Wolf Lodge attracts families with its water slides and myriad of children’s activities. The Mt. St. Helen’s visitor center recaptures the May 18, 1980, volcanic eruption in vivid detail. The devastated mountainsides covered with dead trees still have minimal growth.
We forged ahead on this trip because we’ve previously enjoyed those stops, and we were anxious about Ashland’s recovery from COVID. Rolling hillsides greeted us as we approached Medford, just outside of Ashland. Those vast honey-colored mounds raised my spirits in anticipation of seeing the quaint village of Ashland. And there it was—tucked into the Mt. Ashland foothills, perched along Ashland Creek, and lined with irresistible chocolate, ice cream and clothing shops.
Because the little berg is so compact, a quick stroll offers the pleasure of taking in most of the amenities. A brisk morning walk in shady Lithia Park in the heart of the town before the day heats up is perfect. It surrounds Ashland Creek and features trails, duck ponds and a rose patch. A more vigorous exploration could be to North Mountain Park to enjoy the butterfly and herb gardens.
Nothing seemed to have changed when we arrived, but then the adaptations became evident when I spied a few shuttered shops and noted that some of our favorite restaurants like Chateulin and Standing Stone Brewing Company had closed. Our hotel no longer provided appetizers at the cocktail hour or cookies after evening plays. Those cookies, especially, created congeniality when we’d all gather to discuss the plays over the cookies and milk. There was still a hearty breakfast, though, but the rooms weren’t cleaned daily. We can’t fault just this town for that; it seems to be a common after-COVID issue.
The streets weren’t as crowded as we’d previously experienced, and there were empty seats at the performances. The small theater, The Allen, where experimental plays often found a home, didn’t survive. These were all signs of the festival’s struggle, but there were also indications of success. Strong theatrical performances, spirited shows on the lawn before performances and backstage tours are evidence that the vitality remains.
A trend Ashland developed was to diversify its offerings beyond Shakespeare to attract more attendance. That has worked over the last decade. We’ve seen lively musicals like My Fair Lady and suffered thwarted female desires in intense dramas like Hedda Gabler. This year we saw The Three MusketeersRent and Romeo and Juliet. All were uplifting, even hip-hop-leaning Romeo and Juliet.
 I revel in fun Shakespeare like The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Delightful Shakespeare—yes.  Dreary Shakespeare—no thanks. No more Henrys or Richards!
I have earned the right to a bit of selectivity. I have cackled with the witches in Macbeth, bemoaned the The Tragedy of Richard II and become embroiled in Hamlet’s oedipal complexes. Now I’m giving myself permission to giggle over the Comedy of Errors and nod in assent when All’s Well That Ends WellTitus AndronicusJulius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra can stew in their juices. My group agrees. The plays have tied us together even as our tastes change. We now choose drama, musicals and Shakespeare’s comedies over having The Tempest sweep us away or Othello burden us with woes.
Daytime has found us on excursions like biking, golf and bocce ball. Sherwood Park is a neighborhood park with bocce ball courts where we’ve staged vigorous tournaments. Touring the nearby town of Jacksonville is an opportunity to discover some historical buildings. Talent, even closer, features an appealing restaurant, Arbor House. The rivers lure fishermen to the McKenzie and rafters to the white water of the Rogue. Cabaret dinner theaters and movies have imparted lots of fun as has the abundant shopping. Even if Ashland is 80 degrees, which it often is, it’s still worth a shopping spree.
There are numerous RV parks & campgrounds where Wi-Fi and swimming pools are options. An inexpensive stay is to camp under the stars in the peaceful beauty of the Rogue River National Forest. Ashland also offers luxury hotels like the Ashland Springs and bed and breakfasts like The Winchester Inn. Most are within walking distance to the theaters and downtown.
The Ashland Shakespeare Festival still has it! This small community with its cosmopolitan attraction won’t give me trepidation next year. The plays will be fine-tuned, the accommodations will be spruced up, and we’ll loll in the shade trees while dining at restaurants like The Peerless. I’m betting on the small theater reopening too. It’s well worth the trip to this charming location for a banquet of drama, adventure and fine dining. How very fortunate we are to be able to feast at this cultural banquet.

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