Curt Wollan wasn’t always a fan of Johnny Cash.
“I could never figure out what the big deal was about this guy,” Wollan, a Minneapolis-based freelance director, said.
Then, a few years ago, he directed “Ring of Fire,” which tells the ups and down of the country music legend’s life through song.
“Getting into it, I really respect him now,” Wollan, wearing a T-shirt he bought from a visit to the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, said. “His songs tell a story. And it’s really a roller coaster.”
This week, Wollan, an University of Iowa alum, brings “Ring of Fire” to Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse, his 24th production with the Rock Island theater.
The show, last performed at Circa ‘21 in 2009, runs through Nov. 4.
“Ring of Fire” is heavy on music and light on dialogue. Broken up into four sections -- Cash’s boyhood years, rise to fame, dark years and his redemption -- the ensemble cast, which at times operates more like a band, plays live 40 of his songs, including “Oh Come, Angel Band,” “If I Were a Carpenter” to “I've Been Everywhere,” “I Walk the Line,” “Jackson,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue” and its title song.
To fill out the nine-person cast, Wollan invited some familiar faces: His son, Chet, and daughter-in-law Candice Lively Wollan.
It’s not the first time they’ve been part of the same production. The couple met performing a show, which Chet’s father directed, in 2005 at Dollywood in Tennessee.
In "Ring of Fire," each character sings and plays several instruments. Candice Lively Wollan plays the autoharp, acoustic guitar and mandolin.
“We don’t have names in the show; we all kind of portray Johnny Cash at different times in his life through the music,” she said. “You’ll see each of us say, ‘I’m Johnny Cash.’”
What you won’t see are impersonations of the star.
“No one is trying to impersonate Johnny Cash in this show, because, why bother," Curt Wollan said. "You can go to a casino and see that."
For Candice Lively Wollan, who grew up listening to Cash’s music in East Tennessee, the goal is this: “We’re not trying to be him; we’re trying to honor his memory.”
That includes happy times and darkness.
“He’s got this image of he was always a bad boy and he wasn’t,” Curt Wollan said. “He started out as a gospel country boy and then got into drugs and had that persona and then found the Lord and came out of it.”
Along the way, he said audiences will learn, as he did, to appreciate the many sides of Johnny Cash.
“One thing I learned is to appreciate Johnny Cash,” he said. “If he ever decided to write or cover a song, it was always very personal to him. He told part of his story. That’s what makes this good theater. All of the songs, if you put them in chronological order, tell his life story, which is fascinating.”