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FIXER-UPPER

The Village Players don't want to bring down the house but to shore it up. The play could help.

This building looks like it got the worst of a bad fight. The bricks, around since 1915, could stay in the walls or fall off. The roof leaks, despite - or maybe because of - three versions installed in 20 years. Since the early 1980s, volunteers have looked after the James McCabe Theater as best they can. They have added a kitchen and bathrooms and replaced windows. Now the theater group that owns the building at 506 Fifth St. wants a new roof and other repairs. To that end, director Terry Abbott has cast his latest production, Moonshine: A Smoky Mountain Tale, which will serve as a fundraiser for the theater. All proceeds from the show will go toward the $150,000 repair bill.

The writer-director has already churned out a half-dozen other musicals, all performed by the Village Players. But for Abbott, 37, an enormous slab of a man with the demeanor of a medieval innkeeper, this one is special. It could shape up the building, a county historic landmark that was once surrounded by a bank, a packing plant and a train depot. The former Valrico Civic Center is a reminder of an era long since paved over.

At a July audition, a man in a Bucs T-shirt and shorts got up and sang, O Shenandoah without accompaniment.

Financial consultant Chris Duncan is 50. He has acted in other community theater productions, including another of Abbott's musicals, Christmas Tales. Nervousness carried him backward and sideways in little circles as he sang, the balls of his feet like ball bearings.

Middle school teacher Missy Allison, 38, had no song prepared, so she belted out the national anthem as two fans cooled the room and shadows splashed the trees outside.

The play, set in the 1880s, traces rival bootlegging clans in what Abbott describes as "Cold Mountain meets Hee Haw." The dialogue, full of "howdys" and "well nows" and "I reckons," is nonetheless earnest and possessed of a certain unabashedness. There is a love triangle, Abbott says.

Abbott writes his musicals in longhand during breaks from his job selling air conditioners. Besides writing and directing, Abbott supplies guitar and banjo for his shows. He records this in advance so that he can still work the lights.

Moonshine opens at 7 p.m. on Sept. 7 and runs Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 29. Tickets are $12 each, and the room seats fewer than 100, so theater board members know they have their work cut out to make a dent in the repair bill. Past president Gail Pierce, one of three who engineered buying the building from the county for $10 in the early 1980s, said that much may depend on donated labor and materials, which a successful grant writer might be able to parlay into matching county funds.

Pierce admires the no-frills egalitarianism of the Village Players, where experienced actors and first-timers can perform side by side.

"Historically, it hasn't felt like a clique," she said. "It's not the kind of place where people would say, 'Oh, I don't have a big resume, so I'd better not try.' "

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

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