True Crime: An Immersive Theatrical Experience

Oct 31, 2023

There are few things I like more than setting my feet on the soil of Madison County, especially after a long absence. A part of me will always be there.

I’m recently back from an eventful, long weekend in Hot Springs, Marshall and Mars Hill, where the leaves were near peak colors, and the weather was sunny and beautiful. It was ideal for some modest hikes.

What brought me to Madison County was “True Crime: An Immersive Theatrical Experience,” produced by the drama department of Mars Hill University. The production, inspired by Met Her on the Mountain, was co-written by Sue Fair, chair of the department, and Jeff Mason, and directed by Fair.

I attended the second night of the first of two weekends of the performances run. In it, groups of five students and visitors were ushered through ten darkened scenes of the murder in the Dr. W. F. Robinson Memorial Infirmary, now no longer in use.

The various parts were played by MHU students, who did an excellent job. Each group was allowed to ask the actors questions that might help them solve the murder of Nancy Dean Morgan, the federal anti-poverty worker who was kidnapped, raped, and murdered in June of 1970, in a case that was never solved.

I was in the first group on Friday night, but I intentionally did not identify myself, or ask more than one perfunctory question. Afterward, I signed books and answered questions.

There were six performances, over two weekends, all but one sold out.

The following Monday evening, I spoke in the Owen Theatre on the MHU campus, home of the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre (SART). About 25 people attended, and asked questions afterward.

 During the weekend, I was able to have lunch with my old friend Elmer Hall, innkeeper at Sunnybank Retreat Center, which is featured in Met Her on the Mountain; dinner with Georgette Penland Shelton, co-owner of Penland & Son store in Marshall; and to say hello to Madison County Librarian Kim Bellofatto.

Also with me were my wife Sallie and Deb and John Unkles, parents of my son-in-law, who were visiting from Australia. I gave them a tour of historic Sunnybank, my base on so many research and reporting trips to Madison County over the years for Met Her on the Mountain.

In Marshall, I took them to the second-floor courtroom where the Ed Walker trial was held. Then we visited Penland Store and we chatted with Georgette. I showed them the old jail where Walker was held, now converted to an upscale AirBnB and, across the river, the old Capitola Mill, now also converted to offices, condos and even a day spa.