August 19, 2002 12:00 PM

In 1994, eight miles north of Union, S.C., a disturbed young mother named Susan Smith let her Mazda slide down a boat ramp into the murky John D. Long Lake, drowning her two small boys, still strapped in their car seats. The incomprehensible murders horrified the nation and left a dark stigma on Union, a tranquil town of 10,000 that called itself “the City of Hospitality.” “Union is always going to be known as the place where this terrible thing happened,” said local newspaper publisher Don Wilder at the time. “Much as when you say Hiroshima, you think of the bomb.”

The case also caused a racial rift in Union after Smith initially claimed that an African-American carjacker had taken her sons. And so it was remarkable last month that in a former textile warehouse-turned-theater, the people of Union were cheering. The curtain had just fallen on Turn the Washpot Down, a play with masterfully choreographed musical numbers and funny and heart-wrenching skits about the town’s people, history, aspirations and racial divides, and the collective roar was seemingly a cathartic release from eight years of mourning. “I really believe this is going to change peoples’ lives,” said Everett Leigh, who plays a popular local disc jockey in the show.

“This is so much more than a show,” beams Washpot’s creator and director Richard Geer. “This is a whole community re-visioning itself, transforming its whole sense of identity. This is a shimmering thing that’s happening here.”

And Union isn’t alone: Geer has traveled the country using theater to help towns and cities confront their troubled pasts-and presents. Since 1995 his Chicago-based Community Performance Inc. has parachuted into spots like Newport News, Va., and Belle Glade, Fla., to stage polished productions derived from local oral histories. Geer’s Chicago play Scrap Mettle Soul was certainly a life-altering experience, says Patricio Gabler, 47, a former street person who found his calling as a mural artist—and met his wife, April, 50, in the show. “I have to be in the play, but my shoes are not decent,” he says. “This woman gives me paint to paint the shoes, and after I do it, everybody says ‘Wow.’ And guess what? I end up marrying the woman.”

The Los Angeles-born Geer, 54, was always drawn to the business of healing. The eldest of three children of Owen, 79, a university professor, and Helen, 82, a homemaker, Geer was profoundly affected by a doctor who treated mind and body when he came down with a near-fatal childhood illness. “He knew there was more going on than meningitis,” recalls Geer, then 13 and anguished over his parents’ divorce.

After graduating from Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, Calif., where he had a passing involvement in the drama program, Geer enrolled as a premed student at the University of Ghana, where his father was teaching. But while there, he says, he had a dream in which the words “Go into theater” came to him. Geer took the call seriously, returned to California and studied theater at San Diego State University. While in graduate school he met and wed nurse Adrienne St. John, now 60; the couple moved with her three children to Steamboat Springs, Colo., in 1972, and Geer spent nearly two decades in regional and academic theaters.

During that time the thrill of the footlights gradually began to dim. But Geer was reenergized at a seminar in 1991 when he met Joy Jinks, a Colquitt, Ga., woman who asked him to come to her town and do a play on the community’s history. Geer and his local collaborators gathered personal stories and crafted Swamp Gravy, a play the town hoped would economically and spiritually revive the depressed former agricultural community. It exceeded all hopes: Swamp Gravy sparked a boom by drawing busloads of tourists. It was performed at the 1996 Olympics and is regularly updated for the annual sold-out four-week spring and fall seasons. “I remember thinking that now it would be OK to die,” Geer says, only half-jesting, “because I had finally made a significant contribution to the world.”

Surely the people of Union would agree. Even though Washpot just premiered, many participants, like Emily Griffith, have already experienced their own unexpected rebirth. “I had this feeling that I just had to do this,” says Griffith, 50, who has suffered depression from the loss of her boyfriend five years ago and her father in May. “What I feel about all this is that it has saved my life.”

Geer is visibly moved by such responses. “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing,” he says. “I am complete.”

Daniel S.Levy

Gail Cameron Wescott in Union

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