By Sarah Mansheim
Last weekend, Trillium Performing Arts Collective held a weekend of sold-out performances celebrating one of Greenbrier County’s most colorful characters.
“Chally’s Follies,” Trillium’s spring concert, explored the life of Chally Erb, husband and long-time collaborator of the organization’s co-founder Beth White. Erb was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2014, and as the disease has progressed, Erb’s physical abilities have been diminished.
“Chally’s Follies” opened with a photograph of Erb in his younger days, hair long and dreadlocked, his body perched high on a pair of stilts. Erb has been a professional clown for decades; he’s also been a child, a Marine, a father, a dancer, and a husband: “Chally’s Follies” highlighted many of those parts of Erb’s life.
In the comedic piece “Send in the Clowns,” writer/director Michael Buttrill plays a big-butted teacher to hapless clowns-in-training Henry Hill Jr., Becky Godby and Devin Preston. Unable to wrangle his students – including a talkative mime (Preston) and a clown who is afraid of clowns (Hill) – Buttrill is rescued by the inimitable Erb, who rides in on his wheelchair-meets-clown car, and teaches the up-and-comers a thing or two about comedy.
Later in the show, in “Early Years,” a piece choreographed by White, Erb is portrayed as an energetic young boy by a trio of children, Alex DeGraff, Fielding Foster and Erb’s grandson Ryan Wagner, who bounce nonstop on trampolines and exercise balls as a mother’s voice admonishes him to sit still as he begs to go outside and play.
Erb appears again in the show’s final piece, “Gentle Warrior,” a duet with his wife, White. Erb looks stately in a tuxedo, sporting a newly-grown white beard, as he glides across the stage in his wheelchair. White dances alongside him in the waltz, performed to music by Kate Wolf. The Lewis provided a box of tissues at the entrance to the theater. It was a kind, and practical, gesture: after the pair took a bow, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
“I love the waltz,” White said after Saturday night’s show. “It’s my favorite couple’s dance; that, and the tango! But,” she laughed, “I thought a waltz was more appropriate.”
A portion of the proceeds from “Chally’s Follies” was donated to Unlock the Cure, a fundraising organization Erb and his family created to help fund ALS research at Duke University. Additionally, Erb set out a fundraising jar in the lobby of The Lewis Theatre, and collected over $950 towards Unlock the Cure.
This Sunday, Trillium will present Alive! at The Lewis, featuring an array of performers in a casual setting at The Lewis Theatre at 2 p.m.