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PRODUCTION BRINGS CEMETERY'S PAST TO LIFE

In the village cemetery, at the foot of South Fifth Street next to the First Presbyterian Church, two weathered, white gravestones lie face-down, sunken and level with the earth.

Lewiston Council on the Arts President Timothy P. Henderson paused and regarded the two stones.

"Not only will these headstones be fixed up, but eventually you'll get to meet these people," he said. He was exaggerating only slightly.

His three-act play, "The Marble Orchard," written for the cemetery and staged there and in the church in July, played to sold-out crowds who got a historical education along with their night's entertainment.

"The audience takes part in the play," said Eva Nicklas, who directed the play and serves as ArtFest coordinator. "They sing hymns in the church" at a mock funeral before walking out to the cemetery, where they stop at the graves of both the well-remembered and the forgotten. For example, near his grave in the cemetery, Underground Railroad conductor Josiah Tryon, played by Henderson, spoke with William Box Peel Jones, a runaway slave, played by Kevin Cottrell.

The funds raised by the production have already been used to restore two significant but damaged gravestones -- those of innkeepers Thomas and Catherine Hustler. Catherine is the largely unsung inventor of the cocktail, so-called because she used a rooster's feather to stir alcoholic beverages she served in their Lewiston tavern.

But Catherine's role in local history was spotlighted in the play. Actress Stella Reed played her at her gravesite as the audience walked from spot to spot in the cemetery, "The Marble Orchard" referred to in the title.

"I was driving past the cemetery one night, and it was well-lit," Henderson said of the genesis of the image and the play. "I got the idea of it as an orchard."

After the funeral, the audience moves to the back of the cemetery, where they are addressed by some of the nameless persons who died during the many epidemics of flu and cholera that swept most settlements in the early 1800s. Henderson said neighbors would bundle the deceased in sheets and drop them into a trench in the cemetery as quickly as possible to avoid the spread of disease. The trench burial area still exists, verdant and unmarked, behind the church.

"We gave them names, faces and a little dignity," Henderson said.

The four gravestones of the Millar family, including parents Alexander and Mary, are set for renovation next. In researching the family, Henderson has found that Alexander Millar Jr., then age 16, drove a British frigate from the area of the Lewiston sand docks during the War of 1812 by firing balls of mud at the ship.

Alexander Millar Jr. may make an appearance in next summer's version of "The Marble Orchard," although other characters also appeal to Henderson's history-based imagination. He pointed to the headstone of an elderly widow named Electra, which describes her as "Relict of the late Daniel Shepard Esq."

"She was more than just a relic," he said. "So, in recognition of that, I put strong women all through the play" including a minister's wife who angrily tells the audience that she wrote all her husband's sermons and was denied credit.

The Council on the Arts is working to preserve the stones as accurately as possible, Ms. Nicklas said. If possible, the stones that stood will be raised again on their bases, and their worn lettering will be kept the same, she said.

The revival of interest in the beautiful cemetery, which Henderson said is the oldest in Niagara County, has encouraged the arts council to expand its work there. Ms. Nicklas is in the planning stages of an "Adopt-a-Plot" project in which groups, families or individuals, whether they have relatives buried in the village cemetery or not, would take responsibility for cleaning and beautifying historic stones on a certain plot.

A small stone, lying flat on the ground and almost covered by encroaching grass, drew Mrs. Nicklas' eye. It was unreadable. "Imagine what this could be like if a scout group came and did the edging," she said, marking the possible dimensions of the stone.

Jim Farchione, owner of Niagara Monument Works on Hyde Park Boulevard in Niagara Falls, donated the renovation work on the Hustlers' gravestones.

To help with the cemetery restoration, call the Lewiston Council on the Arts at 754-0166.

"It comes down to this," said Henderson. "Are we our brother's keeper? I say the answer is yes."

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