Good timing, Department of the Interior.
On Thursday, that branch of the federal government reinstated a ban on mining in the basin that fills the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. Two days later, the St. Paul Theater of History premiered the most affectionate Valentine in that part of the world you’re likely to find.
Called “The Root Beer Lady,” it is named after Dorothy Molter, a woman who fell so deeply in love with that wooded expanse of aquatic wilderness on her first visit that she soon settled on a small island there and stayed there for 52 years.
Written and performed by Kim Schultz, it is something of a memoir monologue that tells how a Chicago nurse heard the call of the loon and left civilization behind, reducing her life to the essentials and cultivating a deep connection with nature. Schultz convincingly taps into Molter’s gruff, tough, no-nonsense demeanor, but never lets Molter lose touch with the wonder woman she was on his first foray into the North Woods.
It is a ceaselessly engaging chronicle of a life quite unlike any other. Directed by Addie Gorlin-Han, Schultz keeps the beat going in this collection of campfire stories about what it took to survive in a beautiful but often unforgiving state of isolation. And he does it with a lot of humor and hard-earned wisdom, like the blizzard-fighting saying: “Keep moving, you live; stop and you freeze.
But perhaps fight isn’t the right word, as one thing “The Root Beer Lady” makes clear is something Molter learned from his indigenous neighbors in early adulthood: that nature is best seen as a collaborator, something that requires your cooperation and respect. And that complaining about the challenges she presents you is a fruitless endeavor.
While it’s a one-woman show, Molter isn’t alone. Telling stories, Schultz transforms into a handful of evocatively drawn characters, including Dorothy’s father and sister, the mentor of resort owner Bill Berglund, a US Forest Service officer, and an indigenous resident who was allowed to live in border waters after it became federally protected in 1964.
While it’s true that Molter lived alone on the Isle of Pines in Knife Lake for the last 38 years of her life, she didn’t feel alone. The compound she inherited from Berglund continued to function, albeit by her donation, as did purchases of the homemade root beer she brewed for the roving rowers. They landed at a rate of about 6,000 visitors per summer, so Molter was no hermit.
Thanks to Schultz’s homespun script, welcoming characterization, and elastically expressive face, you’re likely to feel like one of those visiting canoeists as he recounts stories about dragging Berglund to a hospital on a slide or how a loon saved his life. .
It all takes place on a convincingly crowded Chelsea M. Warren set with a canoe stranded on the edge of the stage and a fence made of broken oars. Katharine Horowitz’s folky-flavored score and soothing sounds like lapping waves, hooting owls, and howling wolves add to the ambiance.
While Schultz’s Molter gives a strong idea of what winter is like up there, the overall effect is a warm slice of summer ideal for a respite from the current cold snap.
‘The Root Beer Lady’
- When: Until February 19
- Where: History Theater, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
- Tickets: $58-$15, available at historytheatre.com
- Capsule: A captivating visit with an inspiring nature woman.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at [email protected].