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Hometown woman comes ‘full circle’ in Sound of Music role

By Lynn J. Richardson
 One of the leading characters in a Jonesborough Repertory Theatre musical, now running at Elizabethton’s historic Bonnie Kate Theater, is feeling right at home.
That is because Susan (Holdren) McNabb, who has a major role in the show, is a Carter County native.
“The first movie I ever remember seeing was the “Sound of Music,” McNabb said. “I was 12 years old and I saw it at the Bonnie Kate Theater. I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
It was there that she also first heard the song, “Climb Every Mountain,” the iconic piece she sings during every performance in her role as Mother Abbess.
 “It had been at least 35 years since I had set foot in the Bonnie Kate, and when I went to the first rehearsal there for this show, I was so happy to see that the original ceiling was still there,” she added.
Born and raised in the Keenburg community, McNabb says she is excited to be back in Elizabethton. Growing up in Carter County during the 50’s and 60’s, McNabb graduated in 1971 from Elizabethton High School, and continuing her education at ETSU, where she obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees. 
She taught in Carter County from 1974 to 1986, then in Phoenix, AZ  for about 2 1/2 years where her husband, a Christian Church minister, had been called. In 1989, they returned to Tennessee and settled in Greeneville, where McNabb continued to teach English and/or math at Greeneville High School until she retired from public education about 12 years ago.
Along with education, community theatre, music and singing have long been important parts of her life.
“My mother encouraged my brothers and me to take music lessons,” McNabb says, who studied piano and later took voice lessons. 
Her family included parents Rinard and Florence Holdren and two brothers, Lynn and Jim — her twin.
“My dad loved music, too,” she added. “I remember the times when I was practicing piano and he would sit beside me on the piano stool.  We would sing some of his favorite songs.  “Apparently we could be heard around the neighborhood as one day the pastor across the street asked his family to turn off the radio but it wasn’t on.”
“I grew up in Borderview Christian Church and we had some fine musicians,” McNabb said. “We formed a group called the Beacons and traveled around the area singing at churches. 
That influence led McNabb to serve churches as a pianist and organist, a soloist, choir director, and worship minister.
McNabb’s musical talents also led her to a long association with community theater, dating back to the 1980s. Her first community theater show was Peter Pan with the Kingsport Theatre Guild when she was in her late 20s.
She has since performed in Kingsport, Phoenix (AZ), Greeneville and Tusculum University.
In 2010, when she and her family moved to Jonesborough, she became acquainted with the JRT.
“The JRT has been a wonderful community to work in,” McNabb said. “They are like a family,” she added, noting that when she lost her husband about three years ago, members of the theatre sang at his memorial service.
Even though McNabb already had completed a long teaching career, she couldn’t stay away and returned to the classroom after her retirement from public school, opting this time to teach at a private school, St. Mary’s, in Johnson City.
Her employment at a Catholic school has proven particularly helpful as she has learned much about that faith, she says, drawing from that experience as she plays Mother Abbess, a role she takes very seriously.
“The most significant thing about playing Mother Abbess is to get it historically and religiously correct,” McNabb says. “The Mother Abbess at the time of Maria Von Trapp’s tenure at Nonnberg Abbey was Sister Virgilia Lutz, a Benedictine nun. I researched the dress and habits of the Benedictines, and even though I’m not Catholic, I pray the rosary before every performance.
“What is also significant with the role is that I get to “Climb Every Mountain” each performance,” she added. “This is a song that I feel reaches into the hearts of the audience because this song signifies the struggle of humanity.”
Performances of Sound of Music will continue tomorrow, Thursday, June 24 through Sunday, June 27. For information and tickets, go to jonesboroughtheatre.org.