By John David
"JUDGING AMY," the new hourlong family drama series
on CBS, is receiving rave reviews. The program stars Amy
Brenneman and is based on the career of her mother as
she struggled to keep her family intact.
While many readers may have by now watched Amy
Brenneman, who also starred in "NYPD Blue" and
"Casper," few may recall her earlier days in Montgomery.
For an entire summer and fall, a decade ago, she worked
as an actress with the Cornerstone Theater Company
during its residency in West Virginia.
It was a cold January day in 1989 when Alison Carey
called about the possibility of the Cornerstone Theater's
coming to West Virginia for a five-month residency. Carey
talked about involving people from the local community in
the adaptation of a classical production around local
conditions. She talked about the production's being a
way for residents to express what has happened to them.
All told, it appeared to represent an extremely ambitious
When Carey called, Cornerstone was completing a
residency in Port Gibson, Miss., in an adaptation of
"Romeo and Juliet" with Brenneman as Juliet. A review of
that adaptation was a feature piece in The New York
Times on May 7, 1989, which announced that
Cornerstone's next residency would be in Montgomery.
Group representative Peter Howard arrived first. A few
days later, with the blessing of former West Virginia
University-Tech President Robert Gillespie, the entire
company arrived on campus to begin their residency.
When he arrived, Cornerstone Director Bill Rauch did not
have a clue about what the group would do.After
numerous discussions with many people, including
Charleston attorney John Taylor, whose family had
moved to Detroit, and reading the "Holding Onto Home"
series in The Charleston Gazette, Rauch was
overwhelmed by one central theme.
As he later reflected:
"In our first few weeks, we didn't meet anyone who had
moved to West Virginia from a large city and who had
trouble adjusting to a rural lifestyle. On the contrary, all we
heard was story after story after story about people who
had to move from West Virginia, usually for economic
reasons, and who spent much of their lives in their new,
more urban destination wanting to return back home to
"We learned of the out-migrants in the 1950s who moved
to the northern industrial cities, and of the out-migrants
today who are heading down the 'Hillbilly Highway' to the
Carolinas in search of better-paying jobs, and of the many
people in all the years in between who had to leave their
homes in West Virginia, usually in search of new work."
The result was an original production titled "Three Sisters
from West Virginia," which was an adaptation from Anton
Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Twenty local residents,
including Wanda Daniels and Bill Parks, who later toured
with the group throughout the United States, worked with
the Harvard University and Radcliff College graduates in
the production that was performed 11 times in the
basement of Montgomery's former City Hall, which had
been a school.
The adapted version of "Three Sisters" centered on three
sisters (one played by Brenneman) from Montgomery
who moved with their family to Detroit after mechanization
hit the coal mines in the 1950s. The father found work in a
factory. The play then focuses on the sisters, who longed
to return home to West Virginia.
The play was a real-life story, and the scenery matched.
The sisters'home was constructed from the siding of a
burnt-out trailer found on U.S. 60. The old gym's brick
walls were used to represent factory walls. Thirty feet of
railroad track weighing six tons were placed between the
audience sections to represent how the trains that pass
through Montgomery every day could be ending up in
northern factory towns.
After Montgomery, the Cornerstone Theater became big
news. Articles appeared in The Wall Street Journal,
People, Newsweek and American Theatre. The entire
Montgomery experience was an 11-page feature article in
the Harvard Magazine. The group's work was featured on
"The Today Show," "The CBS Evening News" and "West
57th." And Amy Brenneman, who spent her summer a
decade ago spearheading the "Three Sisters from West
Virginia" and repairing a rented house in Montgomery,
became a major television and movie figure.
Readers who watch "Judging Amy" will be impressed
with Brenneman's heart and her series. Knowing her, she
was greatly influenced by her months in Montgomery and
being one of the "Three Sisters from West Virginia." We
expect that she is longing to return and would welcome