Backstage: ‘Civil War Voices’ brings history to life at Wolf Trap

Correction: Earlier versions of this column incorrectly credited a photo of the cast of the Wolf Trap production “Civil War Voices.” The credit should have read: Courtesy of Wolf Trap. This version has been corrected.

November 1, 2011

Jim Harris saw a photograph.

He was 6 or 7 when he noticed a black-and-white image in a silver frame, set up like a shrine on his grandmother’s parlor table in Nebraska.

In the image was a teenage boy, a Union soldier, in a brass-buttoned uniform with a musket by his side. His cap didn’t fit quite right. He stared straight ahead. He looked, Harris said, “so young, so innocent. Scared.” His name was Alex Sawhill, and he was the brother of Harris’s great-grandmother. He was killed by a stray bullet in battle when he was 18.

Years later, Harris learned of another Civil War relic, this time from his father’s side — the Alabama side. It was a diary. Harris slogged through nearly illegible scrawl on microfilm, learning of Joe Harris, his Confederate ancestor. Joe’s journey “was one of doubt about the wisdom of secession,” Harris said. “He supported the South, but he still seemed to hold almost no vitriol or hatred towards the North.”

In Joe’s last entry, dated Dec. 31, 1865, he prayed for reconciliation and forgiveness.

Harris, a trial lawyer and musical theater aficionado (he has performed in about 50 musicals), began giving talks about the diary. After the first few readings, he added music to the presentation. “It elicited a very emotional response,” Harris said. “I couldn’t get the music of the war out of my mind.”

What began as a climb up the family tree evolved into “Civil War Voices,” which opens Wednesday at the Barns at Wolf Trap. Five characters tell their true stories using language from wartime journals and letters. Mark Hayes, the composer, provided the music by rearranging traditional melodies from the Civil War period.

In addition to Sawhill’s and Harris’s stories, the play illuminates lives such as Elizabeth Keckley’s. Born a slave in Virginia, Keckley bought her freedom and moved to Washington, where she was hired by Jefferson Davis’s wife. When the Davises moved south to fight the war, Keckley was hired by Mary Todd Lincoln. She worked in the White House and died one of Lincoln’s closest friends.

“My connection to the Civil War before learning these stories was primarily as a historian,” Harris said. “By writing this play, I am much more connected, as hopefully audiences will be, with the human side. The emotional side.”

The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Rd., Vienna, www.wolftrap.org, 703-255-1900

Shakespeare, the remix

“The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V,” in previews this week by WSC Avant Bard, sprang almost fully formed from the head of Tom Mallan, the show’s director. The brainstorming session between Mallan and the company’s artistic director, Christopher Henley, about how to, as Henley put it, “make it a little easier to cast women” in the notoriously female-lacking Shakespeare canon, inspired Mallan to set his adaptation of the bard’s works in a tavern. Mallan is solving Shakespeare’s estrogen deficiency with, in a word, prostitutes.

“Henry I(V)” is essentially a mash-up of Shakespeare’s histories — “Henry IV” parts one and two, a little “Richard II,” a dash of “Henry V” and some themes lifted from “Love’s Labor’s Lost” — as performed by the Harlotry Players (the aforementioned prostitutes) in a brothel. The performances are like “Saturday Night Live” sketches, send-ups of the political figures of the day, and the spoofs make up a play-within-a-musical.

“The play alternates between the lower depths of London . . . and the upper class, [where they] believe, ostensibly, in power . . . and in whether the king is honorable,” Mallan said. “The protagonists oscillate between those two worlds.”

If the Harlotry Players sound unfamiliar, it’s because they are. “It’s not history; it’s not even from Shakespeare,” Mallan said. “It’s a tapestry of different lines that we’ve woven together to tell a new story.”

And if the whole thing sounds a little confusing, you are not incorrect there, either; a number of the actors cited the difficulty of explaining the plot to the uninitiated.

“We will be asking a lot of the audience to follow every bit of both of those [narratives],” cast member James Finley said. “But I think they’ll be able to get what they need out of it.”

The actors insist that the heart of what made Shakespeare’s works compelling remains intact. “You still very much have the story of the prince who is not really wanting to be a part of the royal scene and would rather hang out with some subversive types,” said Sara Barker, another member of the cast.

Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, www.wscavantbard.org, 703-418-4808.

TheatreWashington gala

The TheatreWashington Star Gala and Benefit Auction on Friday raised nearly $300,000 for the newly rebranded organization. Almost 400 guests braved inclement weather to reach the Four Seasons in Georgetown, outpacing attendance from the previous three years.

Although the mechanics of the event have remained largely intact for more than two decades, Linda Levy Grossman, president and chief executive of the organization, cited a more intangible development.

“The feel of it was very different,” she said. “There was a difference in energy . . . in vibe. We were sold out more than a week in advance . . . and I think this difference could certainly be attributed to an excitement about TheatreWashington, about a desire to be part of something new.

“It’s more than just a name change. It truly is a philosophical evolution as well.”

TheatreWashington’s new Web site was launched last week.

Jaylee Mead, a longtime Washington theater patron and a current member of the boards of Studio Theatre and TheatreWashington, was honored with the 2011 Helen’s Star.

In addition to a silent auction, a live auction — led by Sebastian Clarke of “Antiques Roadshow” — brought out the most lucrative items of the night: A trip to Asia, with first-class airfare, went for $8,000, as did a trip to Machu Picchu.

Money raised from the event provides funding for TheatreWashington’s year-round work, including audience-building programs and education initiatives.

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