A ‘Lime Creek Christmas’ in Aspen
December 4, 2008
ASPEN ” Actor Anthony Zerbe calls the connection between writer and reader “the most intimate of relationships,” and he doesn’t take lightly the idea of getting in the middle of that bond. But when he got a glimpse of “Lime Creek,” an unfinished piece of writing by part-time Woody Creeker Joe Henry, Zerbe believed the words were screaming to be heard, to be spoken aloud.
“It somehow could be heard, as well as read,” said Zerbe from his home in New York City, near Columbia University. “It lent itself to the stage. Sometimes a liaison is helpful.”
Zerbe has taken it upon himself to be that liaison, and to make sure Henry’s words are heard, in the most literal sense. For some 15 years, Zerbe has been performing a stage show, “Lime Creek Christmas,” that is excerpted from Henry’s work, which remains a novel-in-progress. In the early ’90s, Zerbe performed the show, which includes readings and song performances, in Aspen with John Denver; more recently, he was joined in a production by country megastar Garth Brooks, with performances in Wyoming and Nashville.
Zerbe and “Lime Creek Christmas” return to the Wheeler Opera House on Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 8-9. This time, he will be joined by singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson and Faith Hill, and country singer Hal Ketchum.
Zerbe is not only taken with the way Henry’s words sound aloud, but also how they read on the page. It was some 30 years ago that Roscoe Lee Browne, a stage and film actor who died last year, introduced Zerbe to Henry. The writer started heaping his work on Zerbe, who had established himself in such early-’70s films as “The Omega Man” and “Papillon.”
“And I loved it,” said Zerbe of the attention he got from Henry. “There are people who know how to use language, how to express things heartfully. Joe is one of those. And when we read them, it’s a delight. If I as an actor can enhance that articulation, that’s what I’m there to do.”
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Zerbe was not about to articulate all of “Lime Creek.” That project now numbers some thousand pages and, according to Zerbe, is likely to be published as a trilogy. Instead, he focused on three sections of the story, set around a Wyoming ranch. One episode involves the difficult birthing of a foal. Another tells of an old-timer, reflecting back to the Christmas Eve when he was 5, and the stories his father read him. A third portion of the book that appears in “Lime Creek Christmas,” Zerbe describes as “more poetic.” While Zerbe speaks, Nielsen Chapman and Ketchum sing Christmas carols, including one with lyrics by Henry.
“I’m just this old guy up there, speaking these stories, reflecting on how things were,” said Zerbe, whose career includes appearances in the final two installments of “The Matrix” series; events he does around the poetry of E. E. Cummings; teaching acting at the Stella Adler Studio in New York; “Prelude to Lime Creek,” a companion to “Lime Creek Christmas”; and his newest venture, writing screenplays. “Some of the stories I read lent itself to that, and being surrounded with Christmas music. It’s a nice, gentle, warm thing to do.”
Zerbe had the opportunity to reflect on the quiet nature of “Lime Creek Christmas” a few years ago, when he ran into Garth Brooks at the Nashville airport. The two spoke, and Brooks suggested that they work together. Without much thought that it would come to anything, Zerbe ran the “Lime Creek Christmas” idea by the country star. Not long after, the two appeared in a benefit event in Sheridan, Wyo. Several years later, they did performances in Wyoming and Nashville.
“I knew Garth was this big, big singer, and the whole point is this quiet, intimate, warm thing,” said Zerbe. “And he said he wanted to do it with me. I told him it would mean sitting on a hay bale, just him and his guitar. And he said, ‘I can do that, I can do that.’
“He’s to my left, sitting on the hay bale, and I said, ‘Wow, no microphone, just him playing his guitar. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what $60 million sounds like. It was really odd, but wonderful.”