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June 28, 2017

Sharing Civil War Stories with Amelia


“Rumor has it, a woman has come in here after her man.”

I first read this by the light of a hinged brass lamp at the Library of Congress. After months of research for an upcoming role in Saul Levitt’s The Andersonville Trial I had grown to appreciate just how treacherous and horrific a place Andersonville prison camp truly must have been. I held this humble, chicken-scratch of a journal, not more than twenty pages (life-spans were short at Andersonville), that had been photocopied so that anyone interested could read it without having the original crumble in their hands.

The idea of telling her story, this Andersonville rumor, hung around for years before I mustered the courage to take it on. What kind of a person would do that? How could she pull it off? (I learned later that over 500 women disguised themselves as men and fought, died and won medals on the battlefields of the American Civil War.) And what possible circumstances would ever cause her to walk voluntarily into a place as appalling as that? I, for one, wanted to meet her and find out. The idea haunted me and gave me a feeling that I so often search for as an actor and as a writer – a sense of an immediate and deep emotional connection to another time and place.

I had spent many summers in the Gettysburg area thanks to our friends, Carl Schurr and Wil Love, who brought my wife, Shirleyann, and me in on many a production at Totem Pole Playhouse. The same Carl Schurr who cast me in The Andersonville Trial at Meadow Brook Theatre, which started me on this long journey all those years ago. While performing at Totem Pole, in my spare time, I would sometimes walk the historic farmland and battlefields of the Gettysburg area. There is literally blood in that soil, when you consider the staggering number of soldiers killed and wounded in that place. Fifty thousand soldiers went down in three blinding-hot days in July of 1863. Fifty thousand.

One evening, after rehearsal, I drove past the Gettysburg Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Fittingly, the memorial is chiseled from Maine granite and Alabama limestone. The park is closed at dark, but I made a left turn down the long drive past all the obelisks and statues marking the positions of the regiments that fought at Gettysburg. A light rain began to fall as I got out of the car, a breeze picked up. There was no one around.

I walked out onto the open battlefield and stood there under the light of the peace memorial, the cool drops hitting my face. As the wind rose and fell it whipped the flame around atop the monument. As the torch bent in the gusts it would suddenly light up one side of the battlefield and a statue would suddenly stand out, a sculpted general on horseback, the expression on his face seeming to change in the firelight. Then the flame would flutter back in the opposite direction, snatching away one whole side of the battlefield and exposing a new group of fallen regiments. The stone soldiers atop these monuments seem to stir in the shimmering light, their long shadows, slashing long strokes of blackness across the battlefield. Again, I had that chill, just as I had experienced in the Library of Congress reading room. There was this palpable feeling that I was connecting, being pulled towards another time and place.

‘Rumor has it a woman has come in here after her man.’

The basis for my Civil War play, Amelia, would be a fictional rewind from that rumor’ I had read so long ago. I wanted to bring that visceral feeling I had of being drawn into the past to a theatre audience. To take two actors, a script and our imaginations to another era when people just like you and me had to find the courage, fortitude and ingenuity to survive something as catastrophic as the American Civil War. Stories of this war are most often told by the famous, bearded generals usually associated with this period in our history.

I was interested in exploring how the rest of society got through this apocalyptic moment. There were substantial civilian casualties throughout the war, the latest research has the death toll of soldier and civilian approaching one million in just this 5 year span.  Everyone paid a price not just the soldiers. The war brought the battle to many American’s front door, whether they wanted it or not. Acts of bravery, courage, survival came from all colors, ages and walks of life and from North and South. I wanted to tell a story that brought those people out of the shadows, much in the way that peace light had shown me a different perspective that night on the battlefield.

Amelia premiered at The Washington Stage Guild guided by Producer Ann Norton and Director Bill Largess. In the tradition of the acting troupes of old, my wife, Shirleyann, for whom I wrote this play, was Amelia (I showed her my first draft on Valentine’s Day) and even our seven-year old, Andranik, got into the act. He held the flashlight during Amelia’s quick change backstage. The play got a fantastic reception, including being named a Critic’s Pick by The Washington Post. We also had another wonderful opportunity in Washington, D.C. to connect with our story when we were asked to perform Amelia alongside Matthew Brady Civil War photograph projections at the National Portrait Gallery. It was the first time a fictional piece had been invited to present there.

With our subsequent New York run, I was able to once again to stand on hallowed ground as I had at Gettysburg. After half a year of negotiation with the National Park Service, we were able to run Amelia for a month in the Powder Magazine of historic Fort Jay on Governor’s Island in New York City. The Powder Magazine is a subterranean chamber in the fort that was designed to keep the gunpowder safe and dry. Soldiers would take off their shoes (metal nails in the sole of the boot might set off a spark) before entering.  If Fort Jay sounds like a perfect location, it gets better. The fort had been a functioning prison camp during the war for Confederate officers. My great, great grandfather, Sawney Webb, fighting for Tennesee, had been held as a prisoner in the nearby Hart’s Island prison camp.

Governor’s Island is just off the southern tip of Manhattan. By the time our audience had taken the ten-minute ferry from Battery Park, walked through the wrought iron gates of Fort Jay and descended the cobbled ramp into the Powder Magazine, they were primed to go with us on Amelia’s journey of courage and sacrifice. More than once standing alone in the quiet, cool of the Powder Magazine, waiting for our audience to arrive, I, once again, got to feel that uncanny bond with the past.

The most recent production of Amelia was at Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theatreworks. It was my first experience of just watching the play, as an audience member. In the previous productions, I had a lot of input as well as performing one of the two roles. The meticulous director Laura Gordon did a wonderful job of telling the story with pace and imagination and she brought a perfect cast – Cassandra Bissel and Reece Madigan to the task. I couldn’t have been better rewarded for letting my play take flight with this exceptional theatre.

Thanks to Suzan Fete, Julie Swenson and Jennifer Rupp for seeking out Amelia and giving it the royal treatment. Amelia was named one of Milwaukee’s top ten productions for that season. Sitting in the dark with that audience feeling them pulled deeper into Amelia’s story with eve
ry encounter was a great next step in her journey and mine.

To purchase a copy of Amelia click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.