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Pioneer Playhouse Presents a “Kentucky Voices” World Premiere

Pioneer Playhouse of Danville, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre, continues its 75th anniversary season with a Kentucky Voices original play that celebrates a beloved piece of Kentucky history.
That Book Woman, opening July 2 and running through July 20, was adapted for the stage by Holly Hepp-Galván, from a best-selling picture book by Heather Henson. While the original story was geared for children, the play has expanded the world of the book and will appeal to both young and old.
“The play is perfect for book clubs, school groups, church groups,” says Heather Henson, who is not only the author of the book but the managing director of the historic theatre her father, Eben Henson, founded in 1949. “That Book Woman has been published in many languages around the world and continues to be a bestseller here. The story really resonates with people, and so we wanted to create a play that would truly engage all ages.”
That Book Woman, the play, focuses on a young boy named Cal (Warner Wiles) and his family as they struggle during the Great Depression to keep their family farm high atop a mountain in Eastern Kentucky. Threatening their claim is a man named Aaron Thompson (Kevin Reams), who is intent on building a mine that will bring jobs to the region. Cal’s father, John (Lewis Wright) is trying to fight Thompson’s land grab but sees little hope until one of the newly appointed WPA Pack Horse Librarians (Mari Blake) offers help through the books she brings in her saddlebags.

The Pack Horse Library program was founded as part of President Roosevelt’s WPA in order to bring books to remote regions where there were few schools and no libraries. In this photo, from KDLA, the Book Women from Hindman, Kentucky line up before beginning their route.

“I became fascinated with the Pack Horse Librarians while I was researching my first picture book, Angel Coming, which was about the Frontier Nursing Service,” says Henson. “I’d never learned about these remarkable women who risked life and limb to bring books and a love of reading to the people of Appalachia during the 1930s. In writing That Book Woman, I wanted to make sure future generations would know about this vibrant piece of Kentucky history.”
“I was so inspired by Heather’s beautiful book and also by the bold women who risked their lives riding into the mountains every day,” says Holly Hepp-Galván, co-writer with Robby Henson, of the highly popular stage adaptions of local author Angela Correll’s Guarded and Granted. “This was a story that needed to be told on stage. It was thrilling to research and see some of the original scrapbooks and materials that the Packhorse Librarians brought to nearly 100,000 people. It was also personally fulfilling because my father was born in a coal camp in eastern Kentucky, and writing this play allowed me to bring to life some of the stories my grandmother told me about that time.”

The photo that inspired Heather Henson to write That Book Woman. Henson wanted to learn why a woman on horseback would be delivering a magazine or book to a mountain resident. (Photo used by permission of the KY Department of Libraries and Archies.)

“It’s such an honor to get to work on the world premiere of this play that celebrates a unique and beautiful chapter of Kentucky history,” says director Jennifer Goff. “In her book, Heather created this sweet world about the power of knowledge and care and personal growth, and Holly has expanded it to speak in such a meaningful way about the importance of community. I have always loved sharing stories about and by strong women, and getting to work with the playwright on this one is a real gift.”
Goff, Chair of the Theatre Department at Centre College in Danville, has directed several plays at Pioneer Playhouse, including Southern Fried Funeral, Southern Fried Nuptials, and Farce of Nature.
“I’m so very lucky to have both Holly and Jenn working with us on this project,” says Henson. “I think audiences will love this story of a family struggling against all odds, and I know they’ll be impressed with the top-notch cast, including four young locals who are making their professional stage debut with us.”
Warner Wiles (12) plays Cal, who is at first highly suspicious of the Book Woman and her motives, but slowly comes to respect her strength and perseverance. Cal’s sister Lark, played by Aaliyah Love (12), is a natural-born reader and takes to the Book Woman right away. Two younger siblings are portrayed by Oliver Wiles (8), and Reia Frey (7.)
“These kids are amazing,” says Henson. “They’re all so professional. They knew their lines before the grown-ups. And they’ve had such intelligent questions about their characters and the time period. They’ve been an absolute joy to work with. I hope everyone will come out and see these young thespians shine on the Playhouse stage.”
That Book Woman runs nightly Tuesdays through Saturdays from July 2 through July 20 (including the night of July 4.) An optional home-cooked dinner of BBQ Pulled Pork or Chicken and all the fixings is served at 7:30 p.m. before the 8:30 p.m. show. Reservations are required for dinner; suggested for the show. Pioneer Playhouse is located at 840 Stanford Road in Danville, KY. More information can be found at or by calling 859-236-2747.
There will be a special ASL-Interpreted production for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

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