Years ago tourists came to Ashland, Oregon, for the waters; now they come to see the plays. From the early 1900s, Ashland locals were aware that the mineral waters bubbling up from Lithia Springs just outside town were beneficial in the care of the sick and aged and invigorating for all. To draw visitors, in 1915 the natural sulphur and soda water was transported by wooden pipelines into town, being diverted to the railroad station, library, hotel and a drinking fountain in the town plaza Brochures declared the benefits of Lithia Springs, claiming Ashland as “one of the most delightful health resorts in the Pacific Northwest.” Today the fountain still stands in the square for visitors to drink the water.
The healthful springs, however, are not Ashland’s main attraction today. Nor is the spectacular mountain scenery of Crater Lake National Park to the east or the ruggedly beautiful coastline to the west. The area’s big tourist magnet is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offering an array of theater productions in three venues. The festival was founded by Angus Bowmer in 1935. Bowmer, then a teacher at what is now Southern Oregon University, put on the first plays-Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice”-in an outside amphitheater, July 7, 1935. The productions were a success, and the annual festival was born, staged every year since with the exception of five years during World War II. The festival now presents plays eight months a year, spring through fall.
The outdoor 1,200-seat Elizabethan Stage is the hub, open during summer months. The 600-seat indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre opened in 1970, enabling the festival to expand its season into the fall and spring. A third theater, the 140-seat Black Swan, opened in 1977, providing space for more experimental plays. It was replaced by the New Theatre in 2002. In 2006, the festival included 11 plays in repertory, ranging from Shakespeare, to the classics, to new plays from Broadway.
During our visit, my wife and I stayed at the Inn and Spa at Lithia Springs, located at the north edge of town, peacefully away from the tourists Our room was light and airy and our queen size bed faced a wall-sized tromp d’ oeil of the Eiffel Tower and surrounding landscape as seen from a room in the City of Lights. A small sofa, rattan desk and chair completed the room, while a black spa tub filled a smaller room (which must have been a large walk-in closet), while the large bathroom and shower, overlooked the greenery in the front gardens. Our second floor accommodations had a spacious deck overlooking the well-manicured backyard. The gardens here are also a big attraction. Described as English cottage gardens, they surround the inn and contain a mixture of flowers, including daisies, roses and lavender. A grape arbor breaks up the luxuriant space, while russet hills frame this colorful oasis.
Beautiful gardens aren’t the inn’s only special feature. It has the distinction to be the only place to stay in Ashland supplying Lithia water to guests. Of the 22 rooms, 20 have a whirlpool tub. Indeed I felt like a new man after a soak. Adjacent to the inn is Wellstone Mineral Springs Spa where any manner of massage and spa treatment can be had.
Ashland, just 15 miles across the California border, off Interstate 5, is a short distance to Crater Lake National Park, a prime tourist destination. In addition, the road to the park follows the Rogue River. Along the way, there are stops featuring short trails to view the spectacular Rogue River Gorge and the amazing natural bridge, under which the river seems to disappear and then re-emerge.
Ashland, itself, is a great place to spend time, walking its streets browsing the interesting shops, viewing the vintage buildings and many stately Victorian homes. All visitors should certainly take the short hike through Lithia Park. Laid out in 1914 by John McLaren, designer of famed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, this 93 acres combines the attractions of city parks, while integrating the natural terrain. Once the hiker is out of the park’s central section, a trail follows the natural course of a stream through alders, oaks , conifers and madrones. You’re in the wilderness except the occasional sound of a car in the distance breaks the spell.
The town is awash with good restaurants, as you might imagine. We particularly liked the Winchester Inn. This old home, now a fashionable inn and dining establishment, features indoor and outdoor seating and a very interesting menu. My wife an I shared the Pepper Nut Crusted Baked Brie with Apple Pear chutney. It was one of those dishes that my wife would have enjoyed as her entree, but upon the arrival of her Teng Dah Beef, an Asian-inspired filet mignon, and my freshly caught halibut, we agreed that we had made the right decision.
Meanwhile, back to the theater. While we were in town in mid July, there were nine plays in repertory-three in the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, four in the Angus Bowmer Theatre and two in the New Theatre We saw two plays-excellent productions of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen From Verona” outdoors and “ The Winter’s Tale” at the Bowmer.
Coming this 2007 season will be 11 productions, including Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “The “Tempest,” as well as classics like Moliere’s “Tartuffe” and Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” Likewise, showing will be recent Broadway favorites, for example, August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and Tony Award-winner “Rabbit Hole.” In other words, something for everyone.
To indicate the stature of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the group was given a Tony Award for regional theater excellence in 1983 and was named by Time magazine as one of the top regional theaters in 2003. Last year 373,310 people attended, making it the largest, as well as the oldest professional regional theater in the United States. If you’re coming here, better book your room and tickets well ahead of time.
Plays in 2007 year range from old favorites such as “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest, ” William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” to contemporary works such as Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” and a new production of “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” If one doubts the festival’s importance to the community, just marvel at the stream of people leaving the festival grounds at the end of performances.