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October 19, 2006
At peace in Yosemite
New HSU play commemorates the life of Eureka's
by CYNTHIA E. GILMER
The mother never
finds her daughters, but she finds
peace. Among the switchbacks, green, blue and brown collages
and El Capitan she relaxes into the clarity that only mountain
tops can bestow. That's the medicine John Muir prescribed, and
the waitress echoed, to the distraught mother who wandered the
woods of Yosemite in search of her daughters. Alone, the spirits
of the magnificent keep her company.
"Only the truly magnificent rest here,"
Ariel the waitress, played by Rachael Brink, said to the woman.
Left: John Muir (James Hitchcock) Urges Ellen
(Leslie Hundley-Ostrom) to "Climb the mountains and get
their good tidings." Photo Courtesy HSU
In Range of Light, a new play inspired by
the life of Carole Sund, the majesty of Yosemite and the horrors
that took place there seven years ago are brought to the stage
so people may remember and celebrate the lives of the local women
who lost their lives there. The play, written by Eureka playwright
Wendy Williams, opened last week and is garnering national attention.
Most remember Sund as the Eureka woman murdered
in Yosemite National Park in 1999. Here in Humboldt County, though,
those who knew her remember her as a woman dedicated to children's
rights who made a positive impact on her community.
Williams, a 20-year Humboldt County resident, wrote
the play because she knew Sund, who helped her with the adoption
of her daughter. She said that Sund was very kind to her.
"I always wanted the emphasis to be a celebration
of her life versus a standard murder/crime piece," Williams
Sund worked with the Council of Adoptable Children
and Court Appointed Special Advocates, which trains court representatives
for foster children. In 1999, she went on vacation in Yosemite
with her 15-year-old daughter Juli and Juli's 16-year-old friend,
a foreign exchange student from Argentina named Silvina Pelosso.
The family was later due to rendezvous with her husband Jens
in San Francisco, but never did.
In the following months of the investigation of
Sund's case, police still lacked leads in the case. Then another
missing person from Yosemite was reported. Naturalist Joie Ruth
Armstrong, 26, worked at the park, and her murder re-opened the
case. That's when the FBI assumed the case, suspecting that a
serial killer targeted the park.
Re-examining suspects from the first round of routine
questioning, the hotel handyman emerged as a potential culprit.
After an interrogation with the FBI, Cary Stayner confessed to
the four murders during an interview with a news reporter in
Seven years later, back in Humboldt County, Range
of Light Director Susan Abbey realized the challenge of dealing
with a topic sensitive to the people that live here. Abbey moved
to the area four years ago from Utah but is aware that, though
seven years old, the story remains "an emotional hotbed
and had to be handled just right," she said.
An unusual aspect of Range of Light is the
way that Williams invokes the spirit of John Muir, the early
naturalist and champion of Yosemite. In the play, Muir's spirit,
which rests in the land he so loved, serves as a guide to the
Sund character, who sets out into the park to find her missing
One challenge was to find an actor to fill Muir's
shoes. For this, Abbey placed a call to someone she worked with
at Redwood Curtain, a local theater company. At the time, thespian
James Hitchcock was out of town. Unbeknownst to him, he was actually
in rehearsal. A week later Hitchcock returned from Yosemite to
don the role.
Complete with dialect, walking stick and blunt
demeanor, Hitchcock might have summoned Muir's spirit back to
Arcata. He even sings with Scottish trill and wears his pants
nearly up to his armpits.
The play illuminates the dynamic dimensions of
a post-liberation woman. Ellen, the Sund character, played by
Leslie Hundley-Ostrom, has rekindled the romance of motherhood,
but grapples with the inevitable struggle of caring for and controlling
The setting, what Muir called "nature's church,"
evokes the timeless allure of the untamed struggle of man versus
nature. The concerned mother from a city searches the woods for
her daughters -- and herself -- as she faces the elements. With
18 scenes in an hour-and-fifteen-minute play, the story moves
steadily, allowing the past, present and future to unfold simultaneously.
Flashbacks to her hometown, presumably Eureka,
show Ellen's pacing parents. Her mother's gut wills her to worry
as her daughter's rental car becomes overdue. Details of existence
baffle the husband/father as he reads directions on how to operate
the washing machine. The niche where a mother once was is empty.
Williams intended to write a tribute to the minutiae
of motherhood. Her inspiration illustrates Sund's impact on the
world -- an example of how everyone can make a difference in
their home and community.
"Even the little, everyday acts of kindness
can lead to greatness," Williams said.
As in most families, the family in the play revolves
around the mother. She feels blighted in her efforts to connect
with her teenagers. The more she wants to hang out with her daughters,
the more her daughters want to be independent. On vacation, her
role is to pay the check.
The steady presence of Muir anchors the storyline
and the mother. The classic wisdom of his one-liners begins to
penetrate the mother's sorrow, and also provide lessons that
the audience can take home.
"There can be no happiness for those who cannot
be happy here," Muir's character says.
He explains how people live on the Earth, not in
the world, which leaves most of us "rigidly alone."
But the naturalist sees the unfolding of each day in the beauty
of being wild, with death as a change in the form of beauty.
In the mountains they seek clarity, and the companionship of
nature and peace.
The abstract set of hodgepodge colors becomes a
restaurant, a home, a forest. Drapes soften the angles from the
crafted-plywood hills and add an ambiance of elegance. The stage
lights on Ellen's face shape-shift into sun rays shining through
tree limbs as she moves the audience with her last monologue.
Williams said that writing this play was very emotional,
but gave her a good sense of catharsis. Since she worked with
Sund on a personal level, she felt compelled towards a eulogy
-- but also honesty, with the duality of celebrating life and
"If it's based on a real person, you want
to do them justice, but you don't want to sanitize anything,"
Range of Light has been entered into the
Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, where it will
compete with other college productions. The play may be a part
of the Center's regional festival, and afterward could go on
to show in Washington, D.C., next spring.
As for the Sund case, Stayner received the death
penalty in 2002, although he pleaded insanity. He is on
death row at San Quentin State Prison.
Sund's family created the Carole Sund/Carrington
Memorial Reward Foundation to honor their daughter, so she can
continue making a difference. The foundation helps offer rewards
for missing persons and publicizes pictures of those missing
and suspected abductors.
In 1894, John Muir wrote The Mountains of California.
He spent seasons in the Sierra Nevada and saw hues of morning
and evening light dancing in bands across the bright granite
mountains. He nicknamed the region "Range of Light,"
and in Williams' telling, it becomes a place for the "truly
magnificient" -- souls like Muir and Sund -- to find peace.
Thurman Wilkins, author of John Muir: Apostle
of Nature, writes that when Muir first saw Bridalveil falls
from afar in 1868, he thought it was 20 feet, or perhaps 60 feet,
high. It's actually 600. Like Muir's realization, this play allows
an altered perspective to show how great the ripples from one
Range of Light opened Oct. 12 in Humboldt
State's Van Duzer theater and will continue this Thursday through
Saturday, Oct. 19-21. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. $10 general admission;
$8 seniors and students; HSU students free. For more information,
Cynthia E. Gilmer is a journalism student at
HSU. She has a double major in environmental science.
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