An homage to family and place, the musical comedy “Tonight on Wild Horse Island” graces the Theatre on the Lake in Polson at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 4.
Written by Polson attorney and former legislator John Mercer, the play centers on a Montana family that has gathered to scatter the patriarch’s ashes on Wild Horse Island – the fabled island off the west shore of Flathead Lake. Old disputes and generational differences arise as the sun sets on history and family feuds, ultimately evoking a powerful, loving bond shared by the clan.
This is the second time the Port Polson Players have produced the play, according to director Neal Lewing, who also directed its debut in 2001. Mercer has updated the show with several new songs and contemporary lingo to accommodate the talented cast.
Mercer penned the play in honor of the late Jean Turnage, a tribal member, former state senator and Montana Chief Justice, and the late Missoula attorney Ron B. MacDonald.
“Both men were instrumental in preserving Wild Horse Island as a Montana State Park for all to enjoy,” says Mercer.
He also feels a deep personal connection to Turnage, who “gave me my first job as an attorney, then inspired me and assisted me in getting elected to public office.
“He was the most careful and knowledgeable lawyer I ever encountered,” says Mercer, “A quiet and accomplished statesman, and the truest of friends possible.”
The playwright also knew MacDonald, whom he describes as “an extremely clever and talented attorney, and a huge force – along with Jean and others – in creating the Wild Horse Island State Park.”
According to a history of the island compiled by Carmine Mowbray for the play’s program, after years of checkered ownership, the majority of the island was purchased in 1961 by MacDonald’s father, Butte businessman R. Bourke MacDonald to “prevent it from exploitation by a New York trust company for the exclusive use of its clients. Designs had included hotels, guest ranches and the importation of 100 Arabian horses. It was Mr. MacDonald’s last wish that the island interior be preserved for wildlife, where the public could view it in a sustainable natural setting.”
His son, Ron, and Turnage helped make that wish come true.
The program insert recounts how Turnage, serving as Senate majority leader during the 1977 Legislature, shepherded the house bill that codified the state’s purchase of the island. MacDonald, a savvy negotiator, helped craft the complicated transaction involving the MacDonald family, the State of Montana, the federal government and The Nature Conservancy that finally transformed the island into a state park, much loved by Montanans and visitors alike.
According to Mercer, the characters in his play aren’t based on Turnage or MacDonald, “but rather on the love most everyone has for Wild Horse and family.”
It also reflects the playwright’s affection for “small-stage musical comedies with some family friction in need of resolution.”
His two other musical comedies, “He Does, She Don’t” and “Who Gets the Lake Place,” have each been produced by the Port Polson Players and Mission Valley Friends of the Arts. “If it’s not a musical comedy, why bother?” he asks.
He has two other plays in the works: “Talk & Rock” and “Girls on the Hunt.” But Mercer notes that “setting aside the time and the determination to write” are the most challenging aspects of playwriting.
On the other hand, seeing actors inhabit a play he’s written makes it all worthwhile. That, “and hearing the reaction of an audience.”
Tickets for the show are $19 for adults and $18 for senior citizens and students; group rates are available. See PortPolsonPlayers.com or call the theatre box office at 406-883-9212 for reservations or information. Tonight On Wild Horse Island is produced by Port Polson Players in association with Mission Valley Friends of the Arts.