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Upstaging Summer

Beating the Heat at Judson Theatre’s Summer Festival

By Jenna Biter

Sunshine streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows like a spotlight.

“We do have a star in the Summer Theatre Festival this year,” Morgan Sills says from a bench just inside the lobby of the Sandhills Community College Bradshaw Performing Arts Center. Sills, the executive producer and co-founder of Judson Theatre Company, the professional theater company in residence at BPAC, pauses for a second, then smiles.

“Linda Purl is coming back,” he says.

The name bursts into the room. Baby boomers and millennials — perhaps even Gen Z cinephiles — recognize Purl, either as Henry Winkler’s girlfriend in Happy Days; Andy Griffith’s daughter, Charlene, in Matlock; or Jenna Fischer’s mom/Steve Carell’s love interest in The Office.

Regulars at Judson’s productions will also remember Purl from The Year of Magical Thinking, the one-woman Joan Didion play that ran for two weekends last August in BPAC’s McPherson Theater, in the company’s second annual summer series.

“I loved it,” Sills says, reflecting on Purl’s powerful performance of Didion’s masterpiece about loss and grieving. The material deviated from Judson’s typical summer formula: a bright and fun musical, followed by a comedy — “hopefully one that people haven’t seen,” says Sills — and finishing with another musical.

This year’s summer series returns to that original, lighter formula, with a boredom-busting lineup beginning July 19 and ending Aug. 25. Each show will run for two long weekends, for a total of six straight weeks of air-conditioned entertainment when you need it most.

As always, all three plays will be performed in the McPherson black box theater, a stage-less, intimate chameleon of a venue that can be configured to suit the production. It seats a maximum of 80 and, without traditional sets, asks the audience to use its imagination on the canvas of the four black walls.

“The middle’s back to comedy,” Sills says, describing Purl’s encore in an Emily Post-approved two-person play, Mrs. Mannerly, sandwiched between two musicals. “It’s a two-hander about a small-town, charm school teacher with a past, and the young man whose life she changes for the better.”

Purl performs opposite Jordan Ahnquist, known for his lead in New York’s production of Shear Madness, the interactive whodunit that holds the record for the longest-running nonmusical play in America.

“We’re opening with They’re Playing Our Song,” says Sills. The Neil Simon play, written with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager and composer Marvin Hamlisch, is loosely based on Sager and Hamlisch’s real-life romance and ran for more than 1,000 performances in Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. “It’s never not a hit,” says Sills.

The Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony, or EGOT, award winner Hamlisch, who died in 2012, would have turned 80 this year, so Judson’s production is a tip of the cap.

“When you’re not laughing, you’ll be tapping your toes,” Sills says. “That score is so wonderful. It’s so late ’70s and rhythmic and catchy. There’s a whole lot of . . . Tell it to me, Mama! Listen to me, Baby! Huh. Huh. Huh,” he says, breaking into song.

Sills punctuates his rendition with Elvis flair, though a different Pressley — Jacob, with one more ‘s’ — will be playing the musical’s leading man, Vernon Gersch. Like Purl, Pressley is a Judson series veteran. This year marks the actor’s third straight season flying south for the summer.

Last year, Pressley belted his way through the rise and fall of a marriage in The Last Five Years and the year before saw his Sandhills debut in Gutenberg! The Musical!, a romp about two playwrights of a farcically inaccurate historical play about the inventor of the printing press.

“This show kind of marries the two,” Pressley says of this summer’s selection. “They’re Playing Our Song is a relationship show. It’s touching and sensitive and personal at times, but also the book is written by Neil Simon, so it’s witty, it’s clippy.

“It’s a fun read because of all the quippy little Neil Simon-isms,” Pressley says of the great American playwright who created classics like The Odd Couple and The Sunshine Boys. “At the same time, I’m reading through thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to remember all of this.’”

While Sills will direct Mrs. Mannerly, Daniel Haley, Judson’s artistic director and other co-founder, will reclaim his usual seat in the director’s chair for They’re Playing Our Song, as well as Tell Me on a Sunday, the festival’s final show.

“This is another little gem people don’t know about,” Haley says. “The music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I think it would be difficult to find someone who doesn’t know who that is, right?”

Like Hamlisch, Webber, the Englishman responsible for classics like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, also has an EGOT. Tell Me on a Sunday is a one-act, one-woman musical about a Brit who journeys to America in search of love. Like many of Judson’s summer picks, it has slipped the greater limelight. “You find these little gems that people don’t know about, and it’s really such a pleasure to bring them to people,” Haley says.

Selecting shows for the summer series that aren’t widely known or shown isn’t accidental, but it has been mildly prophetic. “I feel like we have our finger on the pulse because Gutenberg! was on Broadway this past year,” says Sills. Similarly, tick, tick… Boom! — another former Judson summer selection — was recently directed by Neil Patrick Harris at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C.

Purchase tickets to the 2024 Summer Theatre Festival by visiting or going to Judson’s website,  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at