He wanted to give her something to look forward to, something to plan for, something that would once again awaken those passions so deftly expressed years earlier. He wanted to do this for her, his bride of more than 30 years, because time wasn’t a given.
And after all, it had been nearly 15 years since they — the husband-and-wife theater duo of Larry Gard and Marcia Quick Gard — had last put on the one-woman play, “A Song in the Wilderness,” for a 2002 festival at the Science Museum of Virginia.
But what started out as a diversion for Marcia ended up being a therapeutic journey for Larry.
Larry wrote the play in the early 1990s about the life experiences of Gene Stratton-Porter, an early 20th-century Indiana native and celebrated nature photographer, writer and natural-world enthusiast whose books and photographs were years before her time. From 1993 to 1997, the Gards toured Indiana, where they were raised, always with Marcia as the star of this one-woman show.
Larry had written the play with her and for her. The couple never had children, though they considered “A Song in the Wilderness” to be something they created and nurtured together.
The Gards moved to Richmond in 1998 when Larry became artistic director for the Carpenter Science Theatre at the Science Museum of Virginia. In early 2016, they decided to resurrect “A Song in the Wilderness” for local audiences.
Larry thought it might be a good diversion for his wife, who had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects the plasma cells mainly found in bone marrow, in 2010.
They hired noted local director and actor Jacqueline Jones, who began rehearsing with Marcia. Shows were planned for late spring and early summer 2017, both in Richmond as well as their former Indiana.
But Marcia would not live to step on the stage a final time as Gene Stratton-Porter — she died in December 2016.
The show goes on, however, in her honor.
“A Song in the Wilderness” will be performed Friday and Saturday, June 16 and 17, at The Basement, the venue for TheatreLAB, a theater arts organization that encourages collaboration among artists, actors, playwrights, students and more.
Portraying Stratton-Porter is Kerrigan Sullivan, an actress and performing arts department chair at John Tyler Community College. Jones continues as the director.
For Gard, the emotions tied up in a professional endeavor that involved his wife are still raw. “A Song in the Wilderness” has been performed six times — both in Richmond and in Indiana — since May 6. The upcoming shows are the final two.
Sullivan “is such a great actor who wants to do honor to Marcia,” Gard said, but also, as a seasoned professional, her “top priority is just to do justice to that role itself.”
Sullivan said performing in one-woman shows can be daunting, and this one may be more than others.
“You’re in a much more vulnerable place than with anything I’ve ever done,” she said. Audiences are both intrigued by the subject matter, she explained, but also heartened at the story behind the play, at Gard’s resolve to pursue the production in honor of his wife.
“It’s been a very emotional process, (but) it was a challenge I was excited about,” Sullivan said, not just because she had big shoes to fill, but also because she said she connected immediately with Stratton-Porter and all she stood for as a strong woman in the field of natural science.
“I was really blown away by her (and) astounded at everything she’d done and kind of shocked that I didn’t know who she was,” Sullivan said. “It’s a very unique set of circumstances, but it’s been gratifying.”
As director, Jones said those early reading sessions with Marcia where she’d read and go through the script were particularly meaningful. The storyline involves Stratton-Porter reflecting on moments in her life and what she perceived as her failure to save her beloved childhood farm, Hopewell. She’s also saddened by the destruction of the 25,000-acre Limberlost swamp that she loved.
Jones said despite not performing the show for nearly 15 years, the first time Marcia read her the script, “it was as if she’d never been away from it.”
Gard recalls how his wife would throw all of herself into the role of Stratton-Porter. From the tears to the rage, she had a way of bringing Stratton-Porter’s joys and sorrows to life. In his wife’s honor, Gard is creating the Marcia Quick Gard Theater Arts Scholarship for local students. Two scholarships will be awarded in the spring of 2018 to rising freshmen or current undergrad acting majors, one for $1,000 and another for $500.
“Neither Marcia nor I had ever heard of Gene Stratton-Porter,” he said, but when they learned about her, “I felt I had discovered treasure.”
About the show, Gard said, “it’s something I had to do” despite the difficult circumstances. “In many ways, it’s been therapeutic.”