Man of the Wild

What: ‘The Hermit of Fort Fisher’
When: Nov. 6-9 and 13-16
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.
Where: Brunswick Little Theatre
8068 River Rd., Southport
Cost: $20, available online or at Ricky Evans Gallery, 211 N. Howe St., Southport

Robert Harrill’s story is one of local legend. But he is no myth.

At 62, Harrill trekked by thumb and others’ cars over 250 miles from his Piedmont home and a troubled life to the marshes and maritime forests of Fort Fisher. It was 1955, and for the rest of his days, Harrill lived off of clams, fish, and the donations from the thousands of people who flocked to see him each year. His home was in an old World War II artillery bunker.

Eben Mastin, a Brunswick Little Theatre veteran, plays Robert Harrill, better known as The Hermit, in 'The Hermit of Fort Fisher.' Courtesy photo

Eben Mastin, a Brunswick Little Theatre veteran, plays Robert Harrill, better known as The Hermit, in ‘The Hermit of Fort Fisher.’ Courtesy photo

While Harrill was more celebrity than hermit, his semi-reclusive lifestyle was an envied one. He survived off the land in one of the most serene and beautiful places in the world (except during hurricane season—and he survived 17 of those). What began as a nuisance to local law enforcement ended in praise and glory throughout southeastern North Carolina. Despite the controversy—was he mocking our material, money-driven society, or was he just mad?—Harrill was beloved.

In June of 1972, Harrill was murdered by attackers who are still unknown, a cruel, hateful act against our man of the wild.

“A failure at everything the world expected him to be, Robert became a success by being what he expected of himself,” David Wright, who penned the play “The Hermit of Fort Fisher,” remarks. “He was by no means a perfect man, as he would readily admit. But he was a man who met the challenges life and his own actions had thrust upon him and died a fulfilled human being.”

Wright was on a beach vacation with his wife, when she dropped Michael Edwards’ biography of Harrill on his chest. As a playwright, he saw in Harrill not only an intriguing life but also an intriguing play.

“The story had a huge natural amount of drama, all occurring in one spot over a finite period of time. So, from a playwright’s standpoint, it was tailor-made for the stage,” Wright shares. “But on a personal level, Robert’s story is that of survival, not just physical survival, but spiritual survival as well.”

Wright debuted the show at The Paramount Theatre in his hometown, Burlington, NC. “During the four years of research and writing, it became clear that Robert was a near-legendary figure. We premiered this play over 200 miles away from the scene of the action and 40 years after his death. I was amazed at the number of people, Burlington residents, who came forward with their own stories and remembrances and souvenirs from their interaction with Robert in his ‘heritage by the sea.'”

The sold-out show was so successful Wright scheduled performances in Wilmington a year later at Cape Fear Playhouse, home of Big Dawg Productions. This month, they’ll unveil its third run in Southport, this time teaming up with Brunswick Little Theatre.

“I (and Big Dawg) became involved after David sent me a copy of the script, in hopes of finding a company that would be interested in producing the show in Wilmington,” director Steve Vernon reveals. “David then invited myself and my technical director to see a performance, so she and I drove to Burlington to see the show. I knew before the intermission that it would be a great fit for our theater, as well as a tremendous addition to the entertainment landscape in this area.”

Again, the Wilmington run sold out­—in fact, it sold out the entire 12-show run before the second night of performances.

“When we added two more shows, those sold out in just over 24 hours. We even found out that people were trying to find tickets on Craigslist,” Vernon muses. “Our partnership with Brunswick Little Theatre began with Sue MacCallum, who is on the board. She asked about the possibility of us doing the show at their new space before she even saw it. After she attended a performance, the idea began to grow.”

Eben Mastin, a veteran of Brunswick Little Theatre and Southeastern stages, played The Hermit in Wilmington and will reprise the role in Southport. “I’ve directed Eben in at least eight or nine shows over the years, and have always enjoyed working with him,” Vernon tells. “Beyond his talent as an actor, he brings a lot of charm and charisma to the stage, as that’s just part of who he is as a person. What I particularly applaud him for was his ability to play not just ‘the Hermit,’ but also Robert Harrill the man.”

Vernon remains most intrigued about The Hermit because this human character was so misunderstood by so many people. “For example, he did not consider himself to be a hermit, and was surprised when people began referring to him as such,” he explains. “As is often the case, people just attached their own ideas as to why Harrell chose to live his life the way he did. Depending on who you asked, he was a prophet, a nuisance, a beggar, a hero or any combination of things.”

Mastin will be joined by three other Southport-area actors (Paul Pittinger, Ken Campbell, and Noah Huntley) in the 15-person show. They will perform eight shows through mid-November.

“It is clear that some local folks had ambivalent or hostile feelings to Robert early on. But once they got to know him and saw the impact he had on people, those feelings often turned to admiration,” Wright asserts. “It is a safe bet, however, that, given the circumstances surrounding his death, there are some folks who are not too happy that his story is being told again.”

Regardless, Robert Harrill is renowned and there are many begging to see more of his tale, and he will always be a part of Fort Fisher’s history and culture.

Vernon is exploring the possibility of doing the play as a yearly outdoor drama somewhere in the Wilmington area, Wright says. “Reviewers for a couple of the Wilmington papers endorsed that idea. I think Robert’s is a universal story that could play to audiences, both local and tourist, for many years, given the right facility and operational structure,” he closes.

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