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History lives on the Oregon Trail
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
How many times, wonders Travis Gray, does an actor get to play a clueless ghost nicknamed "Whiskey?"
Probably not too many more times in his career, he figures. That's why he relishes each opportunity to recreate a composite character named Stuckey "Whiskey" Parker, an Oregon Trail Pioneer who's dead and doesn't know it, at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.
Gray is one of three living history interns this summer who have developed 15-20 minute monologues performed at three different sites around the Interpretive Center. The other performers are his wife, Emily Nash-Gray, and 2001 Baker High School graduate Jessica Mason, both students at Eastern Oregon University, where Gray is wrapping up his Theatre degree with his summertime work at the Trail Center.
The challenge of pulling off his performance convincingly each time, Gray said, is to let the audience realize they're indeed listening to a ghost, but playing it straight until the very end, because Parker himself doesn't realize he's dead. (In the script, Parker dies of cholera along the Trail.)
During the monologue "he recounts his days on the Trail, and then he gets to a place that he doesn't recognize in his journal," Gray said. "It finally dawns on him that he's dead."
The secret to performing something over and over is to keep the material fresh, Gray said. To do that, his character interacts with the audience.
"That made me nervous at first, but now it's easy to maintain that energy" throughout the performance, he said. "If you use your imagination, you can rediscover something in those words each time."
In a separate show, Nash-Gray portrays Ellie Hanson, another composite character. She is a grocer who traded with the Sacramento-area mining community in 1850.
Nash-Gray has fun with her character, too. At one point she pretends to shoo away the men in the audience so that she can speak just to the women.
"She's a little bit of a gossip," she says of her character. "She's 22 years old, she has some children, and she's done well for herself supplying miners with food so they don't have to grow it themselves.
"She's a little like me: she's independent minded and she loves to talk among her friends."
Even as they continue their current characters, Nash-Gray and Mason are working on new characters, too. Nash-Gray's emerging character is the publisher and suffragette Abigail Scott Dunaway, who the actress was pleased to learn wasn't a man-hater at all.
"I always wondered why she fought so hard for what she believed in," she said. "The day she was born, her mother cried because she wasn't a boy. Her father forced the family to come out on the Oregon Trail, and her mother died along the Trail doing something that her husband had told her to do that she didn't want to do.
"Things are pretty great for women now that we can vote and have our rights. We owe a lot to this great woman. Some people view her as this nasty feminist, but she wasn't nasty at all. She was happily married to the nicest guy, and they stayed married forever."
Mason is currently performing a character named Charlotte Blessing Coleman, a woman who established a letter-writing relationship with a miner and then went out West to be his bride.
"She gets to Sumpter, and she's excited and disgusted at the same time," she said. "On her wedding day she asks her husband to shave his beard, and then she complains that when he does, he's prettier than she is."
Mason's new character is Penelope Walters, who comes to the Powder Valley with her husband and servant to establish a store. Her husband dies in a mining accident, and townspeople disapprove of how short her mourning period is.
How does she patch up her small-town relations? You'll have to attend a performance to find out.
The three are scheduled to perform Monday, Tuesday and Friday next week at 10, 11 and noon and at 1:30, 2:30, 3:30 and 4:15 p.m. Performances continue through mid-September.
For more information, call 523-1843, or visit the Center's web site: www.or.blm.gov/NHOTIC.