Theater Group Remembers Thelma Stowell

By Page H. Gifford


Since its beginning, Thelma Stowell was at the forefront of local theater and one of the founders of the Persimmon Tree Players. Stowell was nothing less than enthusiastic and dedicated when it came to designing and sewing costumes and performing on stage. Members recalled that in the past few years, even into her 90s, she would stay up until one in the morning sewing costumes.

      “As others have said, she certainly was a talented seamstress,” said Warren Johnson, former PTP President. For Johnson’s first appearance with PTP as the narrator of “Oklahamlet,” the only musical PTP did, Stowell had decked him out in complete splendor in an authentic Elizabethan costume.

Performing was always her passion, from sharing the stage with the PTP members to appearing in Langume Productions and tap dancing with the Silver Steppers. One thing that could be said about Thelma Stowell, she loved the limelight. The stage was her refuge for self-expression.

Tom Green has many memories, including Thelma’s amazing lemon bars she would bring to cast parties. He recalls a time when he worked with her on Langden Mason’s “Don’t Get Me Started,” playing a grandmother who wanted to renew her driver’s license against the better judgment of her family.

“Most memorable and poignant is that I will always remember her grandmother character in “Don’t Get Me Started,” in the driver’s license scene,” said Green. “She told me once during rehearsals that she was nervous about remembering her lines, but that part so captured her spirit. She wouldn’t be deterred, passed the test, and then told her reluctant and surprised grandson to take it away, that she had only done it to prove that she could. Her character, like Thelma, was indefatigable.”

Rick Bayless also had memories of working with Thelma.

“Thelma had amazing comedic talent. She could say anything and get a laugh. I remember in Langden Mason’s hilarious comedy “Pinching Petunias,” we all managed a laugh or two, but Thelma got one of the biggest by simply emerging from her trailer house and observing, ‘It seems like a lot happened while I was looking for my lemon bars.’ George Gaige and Ann Small played the main characters, but Thelma stole the show.”

She was a scene-stealer and did it again when playing Cookie in Neil Simon’s “Rumors” with PTP.  After Cookie puts her back out, she would come out onstage and crawl along the floor. She got laughs every night.

“Thelma did so love to dance. We had to be careful with every play she did for PTP because inevitably she would try to work in a dance routine,” said Johnson.

 Carol Carper said, “We all just sort of hoped she would go on forever but I trust that she is doing what she loved best—dancing with her husband on some dance floor in the other world.” Ken Smith also envisioned her tapping her way through the Golden Gates.

The one memory that stood out in George Gaige’s mind was one that explained who Stowell was and her determination and commitment. Her dedication was limitless, and nothing would prevent her from finishing the task she had set for herself nor would she ever let anyone down if they depended on her.

A few years ago, while rehearsing a play for the PTP, she fell and dislocated her shoulder and was taken to the hospital. Gaige drove to the hospital and waited with her until she was discharged at 4:30 a.m. and then drove her home. She insisted that he return in one hour to pick her up and take her to the airport for an 8:30 am flight from Charlottesville to Boston, where she was scheduled to tap dance at her 70th high school reunion.

“She was in a sling and intended to drag her carry-on with one arm through the airport and on to Boston. She was absolutely planning to do this and when I told her it was not happening she was mad at me for about three hours but finally conceded a few days later that I was right.”

 She believed as long as you can keep moving, do it. She lived her life to the fullest without any reservations and inspired those around her that age was a number, not the completion of a life well-lived.

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