As they sit at their usual table in the local diner, Billy surprises his girlfriend, JoAnne, by pulling out a little black box with a ring.
“Will ya?” he proposes.
“Are you asking for real, in a restaurant?” she responds.
“I couldn’t think of a better time, JoAnne,” he says. “It’s not the easiest thing to ask.”
The two don’t have much time for tender talk at this point in the original play “Treeline Fever,” because Billy’s supervisor, Miguel, that “flat-lander” from Oklahoma, is shouting, “Let’s go. We’ve gotta roll.”
Billy’s job as a driver in the natural-gas industry claims a lot of his attention. And soon, he worries, he might get laid off and have to follow the work to another state. It’s not something he wants to do.
But if you come to the Russian Hall in the tiny town of Lopez to watch Derek Davis’ original historical play, you’ll see how workers faced similar challenges some 140 years earlier when lumbering rather than natural-gas excavation was the big, new industry in Sullivan County.
While modern-day Billy ponders moving to Ohio for a job, many of the men who worked as “wood hicks” in the Lopez area more than a century ago crossed an ocean hoping for fresh opportunity.
“You’re Irish. I’m German,” an olden-days character named Shandy points out to one of his contemporaries. He’s trying to placate Ennis, who seems annoyed that newer immigrants, “the Huns,” are “taking a job for cheap.”
But weren’t there enough trees for everyone to chop?
Actually, playwright Davis said during a rehearsal break last week, the supply of trees was exhausted by about 1910.
“They basically clearcut everything,” he said. “All the wildlife disappeared. Later, they had to import deer from Michigan” to re-establish the species. “It took a long time for the forest to come back.”
When you hear the playwright talk about the toll lumbering took on the environment in the late 1800s, it makes you wonder if he’s worried about the effects of natural-gas extraction.
That’s not the case, said Davis, who with his wife, Linda White, lives about 200 yards from a well pad.
“We’re not a propaganda theater,” said White, who is directing the play. “We don’t have a particular message.”
“Basically, it’s entertainment and history,” Davis said.
“We are trying to say human beings are human beings,” White said. “People in the past were very much like we are.”
As the action of the play transports audiences back and forth between past and present, you’ll see parallels in the teasing of co-workers and in the banter between waitresses and their customers.
“For you, love, the whole chicken,” an old-time waitress tells a man who asked for an egg in his ale.
“People do spend a lot of time eatingin the play,” Davis admitted with a chuckle. “They work a lot, so when they eat might be the only time they have to talk.”
Davis’ research has included searches of genealogical websites, a cardboard-bound 1919 catalog that advertised a Philadelphia company’s new saw and the historical account of how Col. Robert Bruce Ricketts came home from the battle of Gettysburg with a new valet, a former slave named John Greene who eventually earned a doctor of divinity degree and became Ricketts’ right-hand man.
“He was an expert on many topics,” Davis said of Greene. “And he was a gourmet cook on top of it.”
Local actor Darwin Hatch plays Ricketts, and his real-life wife, Connie Hatch, portrays Ricketts’ wife, Elizabeth.
It’s Elizabeth Ricketts who deserves the credit for the preservation of the waterfall area and old-growth trees of Ricketts Glen State Park, Darwin Hatch said.
As for Col. Ricketts and many of his contemporaries, Hatch said, “They just didn’t think about the environment.”