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story.lead_photo.caption Carrie Peter, who plays Sarah Wheaton, sings during rehearsal for “Sarah, Plain and Tall” on Monday at Stained Glass Theatre. Claire Hassler/News Tribune

For Bernie Houchens, the story of "Sarah, Plain and Tall" has always been a heartwarming one.

But it wasn't until recently that another aspect of the story hit home.

"Sarah, Plain and Tall" is set in the early 1900s and tells the story of Sarah Wheaton of Maine, who travels to Kansas after she responds to an ad seeking a wife placed by farmer Jacob Witting, a widower with two children. The play is opening at Stained Glass Theatre next week, under Houchen's direction.

The idea of someone just picking up and traveling across the country to a community of strangers is a scary one for most today, including Houchens. She directed the show 10 years ago and loved it, but that frightening aspect didn't connect with her before.

"It never entered my mind 10 years ago how scary that was," Houchens said.

Now, it's different. Houchens said she lost her husband a couple of years ago and is now starting to date again, exploring the often scary world of online dating.

"She inspires me," she said of the title character. "She took it on faith that it would be OK. I am just blown away."

That message of faith is something Houchens sees as being incredibly relevant, and inspirational, for those who explore online dating.

"Yes, we have to be careful, but God does take care of you," Houchens said, describing what she sees as one of the play's central messages. "If we, today, are going into that dating with God in the center of it, we can trust that he is going to bring us the right person."

The character of Sarah is a strong-willed woman who emphasizes that in any relationship, she must be accepted as is, Houchens said. And though she identifies as "plain and tall" throughout the majority of the play, Houchens said that by the end, Sarah begins to identify more as a woman, shedding those labels.

"We should not let our body define who we are," she said.

That independence is also one of the aspects that drew Carrie Peter to the role.

Peter said she loves the independence of Sarah, especially in a time when women were supposed to be quiet and meek.

"She's independent and headstrong, sometimes to a fault," Peter said. "She's really sweet and kind-hearted, which I think comes through."

This is the first time Peter has been on the Stained Glass stage in Jefferson City, though she's acted in plays put on by other local theater groups. She's even performed with the Stained Glass Theatre group in Springfield.

For Houchens, Peter was a perfect find. Given the title of the play, Houchens said she knew she needed a specific person to fill the role. And while they can make anyone plain through costumes and makeup, Houchens said she knew from the start she would need a tall woman, at least 5 foot 9 inches. So when Peter reached out about auditioning, Houchens said she was thrilled.

Peter said the family-friendly story should allow audiences to get a break from their day-to-day lives and step back in time for a bit. Ultimately, the show teaches the simple message of being kind to each other, she said.

When asked what she hoped audiences would take away from the show, Houchens said it depends on where people are in their lives. For those who are dating, she said the message is that God cares about their happiness. For others, she said there's the basic message of how important it is to be part of a community, noting that without her community of friends and family, the last two years without her husband would have been so much worse.

"We are dependent on each other and that's not a bad thing. Just allow yourself to be open to those different relationships," she said. "You just can't ask for a better story."

Performances are set for 7:30 p.m. March 5-6 and 12-13, with matinées set for 2 p.m. March 7 and March 14. Tickets are $7 for opening night and $10 for all other performances. For reservations, call 573-634-5313.

Stained Glass Theater is located at 830 E. High St.

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