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Locals' Words Chronicle the Civil War in a New Play

State of the Arts


Published September 7, 2011 at 10:50 a.m.


Fans of Vermont history typically note two of the state’s more remarkable distinctions: being the first state to abolish slavery, in 1777; and contributing, per capita, more young men to the Civil War effort than any other state in the Union. As part of its sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War, Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History has commissioned a play that gives voice to Vermonters who ventured to the battlefields and to those who kept the home fires burning.

Playwright Joan Robinson, an associate director in the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts’ education department, crafted Remember Me to All Good Folks using only the words contained in letters, diaries and other period documents from the Sheldon’s extensive Civil War collection. Nine personalities emerge: soldiers; women on the home front; one woman who relocates from Vermont to Washington, D.C., with her chaplain husband; and a male villager who stays behind. Another character Robinson calls an “Everysoldier,” and he provides a contextual narration using archival accounts of the war. The result, she adds, is not so much a battle-by-battle chronology of the war as a series of intimate “emotional journeys” plotted along the war’s linear path.

Director Robin Fawcett animates the play’s monologues with nuanced choreography that evokes the dramatic situations implied in her players’ words. Projections of archival photographs and ephemera root the play in time and place, while the sound design conjures everything from gunfire to train whistles to chirping frogs. Shafts of light through barn-board slats are the spotlights into which characters — such as 18-year-old soldier Dunham Clarke of Pittsford, portrayed by Champlain Valley Union High School student Cole Guerriere, 16 — step to testify to the range of experiences the Civil War delivered.

Those experiences struck Robinson as remarkably varied as she pored over the museum’s documents: passion for the Union cause, a budding epistolary love, fear and grief in the face of death, a request for a little taste of home — literally, cheese and pies. She also discerned excitement on the part of some soldiers to be traveling to new places. “These were farm boys,” she says. “They were seeing the world.” Robinson was struck by the language she encountered in the letters, the protocols and “all the wonderful ways of saying goodbye.” The play’s title refers to just such a sign-off.

Sheldon Museum executive director Jan Albers — who conceived the show and is coproducing it with Robinson — and other Sheldon staffers and volunteers pooled their knowledge of their Civil War collection to deliver to Robinson bundles of documents in the autumn of 2010. Albers was unsurprised that Robinson found the artifacts so engaging, and she’s delighted with what the playwright has wrought. “You can give documents to some people, and nothing will jump out at them,” she says. “But Joan had a really finely honed sense of where the interest was.”

Beyond the play’s appeal to Civil War buffs, its provenance in the writings of those who once inhabited Vermont — especially in and around Addison County — may bring the experience home to audiences. At least one character name, Mary Ann Swift, rings familiar today, thanks to the Swift House Inn in Middlebury. According to Robinson, Swift kept a diary throughout the Civil War (brother Fred was off fighting), which was among the artifacts Albers passed along to her.

While the play has plenty of local color, Robinson also sees a universal experience playing out in Remember Me to All Good Folks, one that resonates in unfortunate ways in the present. “The impacts of that war are still very much with us,” she says, and cites as examples Confederate-flag controversies, debates over states’ rights and the persistent question of just what the Civil War was about. Her rendering of “the heart-and-soul experience of the war,” she hopes, is a way of revisiting the conflict to “really make sure we put it to rest.”

Albers sounds a similar note: “Sadly, the experience of war is not so different today,” she says. “It’s still so hard to send people away.”