Mason City theatre feeds off Charles City connection

By James Grob, jgrob@charlescitypress.com

Charles City theatre enthusiasts can take a drive to Mason City this weekend and enjoy a play that will definitely have an “America’s Home Town” feel to it.

The Mason City Community Theatre production of “Over the River and Through the Woods” will be in the second and final weekend of its run. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday in Mason City.

Director Michelle Murray describes the play as a comedy with some very touching moments.

“It’s so funny, but it also kind of gets you right here,” she said, putting her hand over her heart.

Murray is a Charles City native who studied theater here under long-time high school director Linda Brant.

“I was here the first year Linda Brant came to teach,” said Murray, whose name was then Michelle Sprout. “I was in speech contests with her, and had her for a teacher, and just learned a lot.”

Murray’s father, Lyle Sprout, was also her assistant principal at Charles City. Sprout was also a principal at Charles City High School for many years, until his retirement in 1995. He died in 2017. Murray’s mother, Wanda Sprout, still lives in Charles City, and up until very recently, Murray worked part-time at Saxony in Charles City. Murray also teaches online, and that became a conflict, so although she’s still technically employed at Saxony, she hasn’t been able to put any hours in there lately.

She said her former drama teacher, Brant, has come to Mason City many times to watch productions Murray is involved with.

“Linda gets all over — she comes and sees everything that we do,” Murray said.

Murray said it’s a different perspective, transitioning from acting to directing.

“I’ve been in shows with everybody on stage before, so it’s just kind of fun to be on the other side of that,” she said.

Murray’s husband, Marc, is co-directing the current play, and is also handling lights and sound. Marc and Michelle met on the community theatre stage in 1993 and will have been married for 24 years next month. Both have served three different terms on the MCCT board in the years since, and Michelle was recently named president of the board of directors at Mason City Community Theatre.

“For good or bad, it’s a lot of work,” she said.

Coincidentally, she takes the MCCT presidential reins from another native of Charles City, Brian Bauer. Bauer served as president of MCCT for many years and directed and appeared in many productions. He’s also the inaugural winner of the theatre’s Spotlight Award.

“Something Linda Brant must have done in our high school drama years must have stuck,” she said, and added that although both she and Bauer cut their theater teeth under Brant’s direction, they were years apart in school. “Brian is much younger than I.”

Murray said that Bauer’s contribution to MCCT has been enormous.

“He’s a hard act to follow,” she said, and added that Bauer pretty much “ran the theater by himself.”

“Over the River and Through the Woods” had good crowds its first weekend, and Murray says the play is about a young man’s relationships with his grandparents.

“I think people can see themselves in these characters,” she said. “They’ll feel something  — if you’ve had grandparents, or been a grandparent, you’ll just see yourself.”

The play’s narrative centers on a character named Nick, a single guy from New Jersey who sees both sets of his grandparents every Sunday for dinner. This is routine until he has to tell them that he’s been offered a dream job across the country in Seattle, and his grandparents concoct a series of schemes to keep Nick around.

Michelle said that there were many in the audience with tears in their eyes last weekend.

“It has all the feels,” she said.

The play was written by Joe DiPietro, and the cast includes Chris Hager, Sid Bohls, Steve Musson, Cindy Dahl, Rachel Hall and Kayla Halfpap — who also has Charles City ties. Halfpap, whose maiden name is Samuelson, taught in the area at one time, and Michelle said she has relatives here.

“We had a really good turnout for auditions so we were able to put together a great cast for this show,” said Marc. “It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve surrounded ourselves with a lot of great people, and so we have a great product.”

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