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Jackson siblings bring Laura Ingalls Wilder story to life

Lessman children cast in outdoor production of Walnut Grove's Wilder Pageant in July

Cal, Messina and Taryn Lessman of Jackson each have roles in the Wilder Pageant's production of Fragments of a Dream, which runs for three weekends in July on the pageant grounds near Walnut Grove. (Photo courtesy Justin Lessman / Jackson County Pilot)

WALNUT GROVE — For three weekends each July, Walnut Grove hosts the outdoor amphitheater production of the Wilder Pageant, sharing stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood years on the southwest Minnesota prairie through “Fragments of a Dream.”

A trio of Jackson siblings is, for the sixth consecutive year, cast in the production. Not only do the children of Justin and Amber Lessman get to perform, they have leading roles.

Ten-year-old Messina portrays Laura Ingalls, while Cal, 13, is cast as Willie Oleson and Taryn, 15, takes the stage as Clementina Bedal, the school teacher.

The Lessmans have taken part in nightly practices for the past month to prepare for the July 9-10, 16-17 and 23-24 performances on the pageant grounds west of Walnut Grove. A family cabin on Lake Sarah serves as home base for the kids, making their participation feasible.

With parents who grew up near Walnut Grove, Taryn, Cal and Messina had the "Little House" books read to them when they were quite young, and then read them on their own when they were able. Messina is currently reading "Little House on the Prairie" and is struck by the similarities — and some of the differences — between the scenes and phrases on stage and those penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the book.


As much as she enjoys the book, it wasn’t Laura Ingalls that Messina had hoped to portray on stage this year — at least not initially.

“This year I wanted to be Nellie Oleson — I wanted it so bad,” Messina shared with a dimpled grin. “Then I was named Laura and I thought, ‘Oh, I wanted Laura more than I wanted Nellie.’

“I’m happy with any part, speaking or not, as long as I get to be in it.”

Similar words were spoken by her older sister, and Messina was quick to point out that she is her sister’s shadow — wanting to do whatever Taryn does.

“I plan on auditioning as long as I can,” Taryn said. “I love history, so it’s so fun to be involved in this and telling Laura’s story. I also really love acting. I have a bunch of great friends at the pageant, and it’s just a super fun time.”

Cal, meanwhile, was talked into auditioning by his parents.

“I said, ‘Whatever, I’ll be in it. Then I found out there were snacks backstage,” Cal said. “That’s what kept me in it for the first couple of years.”

Now, as long as his sisters are in the production, Cal said he may as well audition too, — he'll be there anyway. Besides, he likes the role of Willie Oleson and may want to portray the devious boy again next year. His favorite scenes in the production take place at Oleson’s Mercantile and at the town council meeting, which involve “a lot of screaming from Nellie and Willie.”


A dream come true

Taryn’s interest in the pageant dates back a decade ago, when she accompanied her parents to the production for the first time. Already familiar with the stories through the "Little House" books, she was mesmerized by "Fragments of a Dream" and wanted to have a part in the play.

With Cal just 3 years old and Messina a baby, however, it just wasn’t feasible.

Taryn didn’t give up though, begging her parents to audition year after year until, six years ago, they agreed.

And, since she was going to audition, both Cal and Messina could as well.

Taryn’s first role was as Mary Bedal, while Cal portrayed one of the Bedal boys and Messina was chosen to play Grace Ingalls.

“I don’t remember seeing it from the audience because I’ve always been in it,” Messina shared, adding that her parents gave her pop to keep her awake through the evening performances that end around 11 p.m. and are followed by autograph sessions with attendees.

“She always had Sharpie all over her dress after autographs, and Mom and Dad had to take (her costume) over to Grandma and Grandpa’s washing machine every night,” Cal said.

Messina used the Sharpie to sign her autograph, which back then consisted of MB (for Messina Brynn) because she couldn’t spell her last name.


“It was so big, it went all over the other autographs,” Messina said. “We spent time practicing my full name, but I didn’t get it down.”

As the trio has grown and matured, they have been cast into larger roles in the pageant that include speaking and spending more time on stage. Taryn’s roles have also included Eva Bedal, Catherine Kennedy, a weekend as Nellie Oleson as the understudy, Mary Ingalls and the adult Laura Ingalls, which she portrayed last year when the pageant was presented online only due to the global pandemic.

Cal, meanwhile, was cast as Hjalmer Nelson for two years, then Sandy Kennedy for two years. He portrayed Willie Oleson in the online production last year, but being part of the outdoor theater this year is much better.

“I’d been trying to get a decent role and this year I got the biggest part I could get,” he said.

Messina went from portraying Grace Ingalls to playing Carrie Ingalls for two years, then Julia Nelson and, last year, Nellie Oleson.

She said her role as Laura is both nerve-wracking and exciting.

“There’s a lot of lines, but I know most of them,” Messina said. “The part I’m most nervous about is the scene where I have to pet Pet and Patty, and I’m kind of afraid of horses.”

Since the pandemic was still a concern this spring, all of the auditions were conducted via video submissions in mid-April. The cast was announced in late May.

With a nightly practice schedule that began earlier this month, the Lessmans will continue with rehearsals right up until opening night. Then, after the first weekend of performances, they will do one dress rehearsal per week leading up to the last two weekends.

The Wilder Pageant’s 44th year of "Fragments of a Dream" will be presented at its hillside, outdoor amphitheater on the banks of Plum Creek beginning at 8:30 p.m. July 9-10, July 16-17, and July 23-24. Gates to the pageant grounds open at 7 p.m., at 11505 Crown Ave., Walnut Grove. For ticket reservations, call 1-888-859-3102 or visit

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