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Lynchburg-area judges’ stories brought to life

The court stories of two of Virginia’s best storytelling judges recently came to life in a stage production put on in the small town of Brookneal in Campbell County.

The play, titled “Short Circuit,” was based on the stories of Campbell County Circuit Judges J. Samuel Johnston and Charles E. Burks.

While Judge Burks died in 1965, his stories were collected in the book “We Remember Charlie: Recollections of the Late Judge Charles E. Burks of Lynchburg, Virginia,” longtime Bedford Circuit Judge William W. Sweeney.

Johnston, however, was in attendance for all three showings of the play in late April.

“They couldn’t get Tom Cruise to play me, obviously, but I’d be satisfied with whoever they got,” he said in an interview. “It was well laid out and it captured the essence of what went on in court, and I thought it was very well done.”

Campbell County playwright Donalynn Davis said she was first approached about writing the play by the Rustburg Historical Society.

Using the Sweeney book of Burks’ stories and Johnston’s own “Why Judges Wear Robes,” Davis cobbled together a play combining her favorite stories from both books into something original.

Davis said all three performances were shown to near-sell-out crowds, and Johnston, who has Parkinson’s disease, was able to participate, both as an attendee, and to promote his book.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time. I sat behind him during the play and just to see him belly laugh and look at his wife and remember when that happened, or to say ‘I read about that in Judge Sweeney’s book [about Burks]’ … It was a special thing,” Davis said.

Davis said that one of her favorite parts about the books and the play is that they show the lighter side of what is otherwise considered a very serious environment.

“Not too many people get the chance to be in a courtroom and see the craziness that goes on there,” Davis said. “It’d be neat if more lawyers would write stuff down to inform the public that it’s not all stuffy and negative, but there’s another side that’s enjoyable.”

Johnston was far from modest when asked to describe why he thinks the stories resonate with so many people.

“I can tell a story. I got the gift of gab about me,” he said. “And they’re true stories.”

Davis said that while there are no future plans to show the play again, she is always open to ideas, wherever they may come from. Mostly, she said she is just happy Johnston and his family were able to be a part of it.

“I got a tremendous benefit out of it because of the joy it brought Judge Johnston and his family. It was a really great thing to see happen.”

Johnston said he appreciated the effort.

“It was a pleasure doing it, and seeing my name on the marquee,” he said. “It was well worth it.”