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Woman's island life comes to the stage

The small, freckled face with determined jaw and somber eyes, captured in a photograph, tells a story _ this child already has known much heartache.

Indeed, Myrtle Scharrer Betz was not quite 6 years old when her mother died. She was brought up by a stern but loving father on Caladesi Island State Park, then called Hog Island. Her days there were filled with chores and responsibility. It was a hard life for a child, yet a joyous and exciting life, too, as reflected in Mrs. Betz book, Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise, published in 1985.

Mrs. Betz died in January 1992 at the age of 96. She had recorded her memories of her island life, surrounded by nature and wildlife, initially for her family. But the book was revised and reprinted in 1991, with proceeds from sales now going to a scholarship fund in her father's memory.

Playwright Elizabeth Brincklow met Mrs. Betz, read her book, listened to family stories, looked at old photographs and watched taped interviews with the elderly woman. Then she wrote an original play inspired by Mrs. Betz' life and her love for her island home.

The Islander will make its debut Saturday at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, in conjunction with the annual art show exhibition of Christopher Still at the Tarpon Tower. Mrs. Betz is one of the figures in Still's latest work, "Changing Tides," which will be on display.

The play has only two characters _ the adult Myrtle at about age 30, portrayed by Missy Schlesman, and the child Myrtle played by Jessica Howell, 10, who does jumping jacks before rehearsals "to get my energy flowing," she said.

Both actors tell portions of the story, with some interaction. Much of the play is in Mrs. Betz' own words, taken directly from the book. "Who better to tell the story than Myrtle?" Brincklow said.

A poignant passage tells about young Myrtle's school days. She rowed daily from Caladesi Island to the mainland to attend classes, wearing "serviceable" dresses and shoes that laced to the ankles. Because she was different, she sometimes was teased by the other girls.

The actors relate this story, in Mrs. Betz' own words from the book: "I was plain-faced to a fault, a ridge of freckles across my nose and cheeks overlapped like shingles, sun-faded blonde hair was pulled tight in a large braid down my back. No beauty was I, and the girls were quick to tell me so."

When she told her father, whom she considered wise, about the teasing from the other children, he advised her: "You are worried because you are plainer than some of the girls at school. Well, I can tell you how you can become one of the most beautiful women in the world. . . . All you have to do is be kind, thoughtful of others, never say any hurtful words to or about anyone, be helpful and polite. In other words, you treat others as you would like to be treated, and you will find that treatment in kind will be returned to you."

Many times, in her book, Mrs. Betz quoted the "words of wisdom" of her kindly father, and Brincklow has used such passages frequently in the play as well as Mrs. Betz' observations of island living. "There are pleasures for me in every month," the child Myrtle says. "Combing the beach is like turning the pages of a book."

The Islander is the second play in Brincklow's "The Florida Trilogy" and is presented through Altered Stages, a non-profit theater company incorporated in 1989. The first play in the series, In a Perfect Paradise, dealt with the citrus and cattle industries in Florida.

The production is directed by Marcia Jeffrey, who lets the actors move about the stage as they think the character would.

"You have to give them direction but let them alter that direction and have it fit what the character would do," Jeffrey said. "It has to be part of the actor's choice, or it's not honest. As the character develops, the movements develop."

Schlesman, who plays the adult Myrtle, said she has learned a lot by working with Jeffrey. "With Marcia, you let the lines and your feelings carry you," Schlesman said. "Marcia really made us think for ourselves. There is more freedom but a lot more responsibility and more accountability. It really forces you to analyze every aspect of the character and every aspect of the story."

IF YOU GO

The Islander by Elizabeth Brincklow, based on the life of Myrtle Scharrer Betz, will be presented at 7, 8:15 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, 101 S Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs. Admission is free. The 30-minute performance is in conjunction with the annual art show/exhibition of Tarpon Springs artist Christopher Still at the Tarpon Tower. Call 736-4392.

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