ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- Jeff Barker and Karen Bohm starred in "The Glass Menagerie" in the fall of 1973 at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois. While sitting backstage in rehearsals as the other characters in Tennessee Williams' classic play completed a 20-minute scene, Barker and Bohm became friends.
Eventually, they grew closer. They began dating. Two years later, Jeff proposed. Karen said, "Yes." And they married.
Last weekend, the couple staged "The Glass Menagerie" at Northwestern College in Orange City, where both remain key figures in the theater department. And some 45 years after starring in this show, Jeff Barker directed it as Karen Bohm Barker reprised her role as Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch.
To top it off? Their old theater professor, Margo Voltz, traveled from Gallup, New Mexico, to see her former students in action. She sat next to Jeff in the front row of the Allen Theatre at the DeWitt Theatre Arts Center as the tense drama unfolded in a pair of productions on Saturday. (The show continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.)
"Jeff contacted me a year ago and said they'd be doing a production we'd done three billion years ago," Margo said with a laugh. "Jeff and Karen have been to visit us in New Mexico, but I hadn't seen a production here. It was wonderful! I was thrilled to be here!"
Director's notes provided by Jeff gave audience members chills in a good way as they settled in, awaiting for lights to illuminate the memory of Tom Wingfield, played by senior Warren Duncan, in his last NWC performance. "Come backstage with me," Jeff wrote. "We're offstage left in a small chapel at Greenville College in November of 1973. I'm playing the role of Tom in 'The Glass Menagerie.' My new friend Karen is playing Amanda. We're huddled in that tiny space, whispering while our fellow actors are playing their scene in Act II. The scene onstage leads to a kiss. The scene backstage leads to marriage...celebrating 43 years this summer."
Both Jeff and Karen are now wrapping up their 30th year with this theatrical department at NWC. And, to think, for them, it all began with "The Glass Menagerie" in 1973.
"I was a sophomore and Karen was a senior," Jeff said. "I played Tom and she played Amanda. It's a favorite show of ours for sentimental reasons, obviously."
"We have given each other little glass pieces through the years," Karen said, connecting the signature elements of this drama with their lives. "We have one tiny glass unicorn left at home. It's high on a shelf to keep it safe."
From time to time, Karen, a professional actor, performs with students at NWC. Jeff explained it only makes sense as other theater professors share their expertise in lighting, set design and direction. Why not have a professional who works on-stage do so in a play as well? Thus, Karen's presence in the center of this drama, doing a role she'd done while acting for her director/mentor in 1973.
"I'm playing Amanda much differently than I did in 1973," said Karen, who majored in psychology at Greenville. "I remember Margo taking me out to a wooden area back then just to get me to yell. I was very reserved back then."
Margo remembered it and finished the memory. "We went to the gulleys," she said, smiling.
Karen and Jeff said they couldn't overstate the impact Margo and her husband, David Mellick, had on them at the time. Often times, after rehearsals in 1973, they'd retire to the residence of Margo and David, and come to see a young couple that demonstrated value for the arts, value for their faith, and a value for equality.
Years later, David Mellick died of cancer, at the age of 39. When the Barkers came to see Margo for the funeral, their car broke down. Margo saw the plight of her former students and sold her David's car, a Plymouth Valiant. Her asking price: $1.
"I had a car," she said on Saturday. "I didn't need a second one at that point."
Margo and David were in the process of adopting a child when David became ill. After his death, she continued and adopted a daughter, raising her for a time as a single parent. Seven years later, she married and moved to New Mexico, where she's resided for years, limiting her theatrical work to acting classes and some dramatic productions in her church.
Over her career, the only time she served as a full-time professor took place in that two-year stint at Greenville College. Last weekend, Jeff, Karen and Margo talked about their careers, their artistic choices in "The Glass Menagerie," and about the wonderful ways in which Margo and David helped shape a young couple as they fell in love in a tiny chapel-turned-theater in 1973.
Said Jeff: "Margo said she often wondered why she did all that graduate work when she never put it to use except for those couple of years that she taught at Greenville."
Ultimately, one main outcome of Margo Volck's brief teaching career may have been the couple she watched in action on Saturday in Orange City. A couple that, quite possibly, has had a similar, profound effect upon hundreds of students who've moved in faith and truth on-stage, off-stage and back-stage over the past 30 years at Northwestern College.
The couple smiled at the prospect of this result, as did their professor. If the reason Margo taught, in the big picture, was to help put Jeff and Karen together, the trio agreed, "It was worth it!"