Behind the Tombstones tour

Jason Asaad, playing John E. Davis, stands Friday by Davis’ headstone during the “Behind the Tombstone: Our Place” cemetery walk at Spring Hill Cemetery.

The light drizzle didn’t penetrate the canopy of trees nor did it dampen the spirits of the deceased who welcomed visitors Friday evening to Spring Hill Cemetery.

Women in hoop skirts and men wearing work clothes and formal attire drifted through the grounds and took their places near tombstones that marked their final resting place. They kept umbrellas hidden behind the markers as they waited for the groups of visitors who arrived for a special tour.

The picturesque graveyard serves as the final resting place for many of Danville’s most interesting residents. The diverse group includes many contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln.

“Behind the Tombstone: Our Place” continues at Spring Hill today and Sunday. The 1½-hour tours bring the area’s history to life in a joint production by the Vermilion County Museum and the Red Mask Players.

Don Richter, president of the museum society board, wrote the historically accurate script that formed the basis for the tour.

“I keep it very factual,” Richter said. “People like that aspect. Some even look for the dates we use to make sure they’re right.”

Red Mask actors breathe personality into their lines. Many of them have strong connections to the cemetery. Some have spent a great deal of time there before these performances.

Jamey Coutant’s great-aunt and great-uncle are buried in Spring Hill. She brought her children to visit the graves and the cemetery became a favorite family destination. She returns this weekend as Jospephine Fithian, a guide for the cemetery walk along with Bob Hous as Dr. William Fithian. Several pairs of actors portray the couple so guests don’t have to wait for their tours to begin.

“I love this cemetery,” Coutant said. “When people visit from out of town, this is a place I take them to see.”

Her children, Amanda and Brian, feel similarly connected to both Spring Hill and Red Mask. Amanda portrays Amelia Johns, a friend of Stella Barkley’s, while Brian appears as a young Civil War soldier on the tour.

By popular demand, Stella actually speaks this year instead of standing mournfully as legend portrays her at the time of her death from a broken heart. Kelsey Daugherty, who plays the young woman whose grave is marked with an angel, said she didn’t know Stella’s story until she was cast in the part.

“I’d visited here before with a friend, and I saw the statue,” Daugherty said. “I didn’t know the story before. It’s wonderful.”

Danville native Gary Gardner read about the last cemetery walk held two years ago. He’s in town on sabbatical from his job teaching theater in California and said he wished he’d been cast in this year’s performance. As things worked out, he was when another actor became unavailable.

Gardner portrays the Rev. Thurmon Shouse, a man who lived until 1957. The most striking thing about his character, according to the actor, was that he sold plots to everyone even gypsies.

“It just shows that when people are dead, everyone is welcome,” he said.

Tobi Peck added more local color to cemetery customs in her role as a professional mourner.

“Instead of flowers, the custom was to hire someone to mourn the dead,” Peck said. “They were paid to be very theatrical.”

IF YOU GO

The Vermilion County Museum Society and the Red Mask Players present “Behind the Tombstone” from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today and from 12:40 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at Spring Hill Cemetery. Tours leave from the English Street gate every 20 minutes, with parking and a shuttle bus available in the YMCA parking lot. Tickets are $15. In the event of rain, call the museum at 442-2922 to check if the tours will be postponed until next weekend.

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