• Theater Review: Vermont’s Civil War drama retold in words and music
    By Jim Lowe
     | April 28,2013
    Jim Lowe / Staff Photo

    Schoolteacher Mary Jane Root (Avalon Kann) and Ransom Towle (Aaron Aubrey) share a shy but tender moment before he goes off to fight in the Civil War.

    Vermont sent far more than its share of young men to fight in the American Civil War, and its effects were as dire on those left at home as those who fought on the battlefield.

    “Ransom,” an original play with music that celebrates those unsung heroes in the war and at home, received its professional premiere Friday at City Hall Arts Center by Lost Nation Theater. Running through May 12, it proved a deeply rewarding experience — both entertaining and powerful.

    Based on letters sent from home as well as those from the front, “Ransom” dramatizes the effects of the war on the residents of the farming town of West Rochester. Focusing on the story of young Ransom Towle, it authentically illustrates the plight of the townspeople.

    When Towle leaves his parents and sister to go to war, a romance develops through letters with the local schoolteacher. Meanwhile, his mother pines for her son, while the sister feels ignored.

    This isn’t a romanticized tale of heroism. After his son is killed in the fighting, 51-year-old Joshua Whitney is forced to enlist to save his farm. His wife and young children are left in abject fear. How they manage, especially 14-year-old Sydney, the only “man” remaining, is a real tale of heroism.

    These stories and others are given a very human side in this adaptation of letters, newspapers and other source materials. Adding to the emotional atmosphere — sometimes softening the blow somewhat of the more tragic moments — is traditional music of the time and original music in that style.

    The genesis of “Ransom” began when Rochester historian Joe Schenkman discovered a box containing 31 letters, a diary and a printed narrative, all from Towle, at the Vermont Historical Society. From them and other source material, Schenkman, playwright Dick Robson, professional theater director Ethan Bowen, and an intern from Middlebury College, April Dodd, fashioned a play.

    Composers Dorothy Robson and Jake Wildwood arranged traditional music and created songs in the same style. Ten months from the beginning, the first production was presented by the White River Valley Players, Rochester’s community theater, directed by Bowen. Kim Bent and Kathleen Keenan, Lost Nation’s artistic directors, were so impressed they offered a professional production.

    Lost Nation’s version, somewhat refined from the original by director Bent, is largely successful. There are some distracting unison speeches and superfluous tableaux that seem more ceremonial than dramatic. Still, the story is convincing, and with a real emotional arch, and quite powerful. And there’s plenty of humor to boot.

    The large cast is mostly excellent, though only a few of the characters have real dimension. Veteran actor Aaron Aubrey gives Towle a real humanness, both natural and sympathetic. He is matched by Avalon Kann’s besotted schoolteacher, Mary Jane, who convincingly reflects the roller coaster of young love in terrible times.

    Ira Sargent, though a bit stiff, gave dimension to Ransom’s father Rufus, while Eve Passeltiner was convincing in the monochromatic role of the mother. McKenzie Lattimore was wonderfully real as Ransom’s frustrated sister Laura.

    Robert Nuner gave a powerful performance as the older Joshua Whitney, matched all the way by Karin Shearer as his scared wife Sarah. But it was Chris Killoran who delivered the most emotionally wrenching performance as the son Sydney, overwhelmed by it all. In fact, the kids were amazing — with little or no cuteness (sorry, parents) to mar the story’s power,

    Musical power was offered by the excellent vocal quartet of Mary McNulty, Carolyn Wesley, Jeff Tolbert and Rick Ames, while Ames lent his charismatic voice to the role of narrator. In fact, there wasn’t a weak link in this very large cast.

    Music direction by Rip Keller and his band of fine instrumentalists added substantially to the production’s authentic flavor. Taryn Noelle’s choreography was fluid and natural. Clayborne Coyle’s atmospheric set, creatively lit by Wendy Stephens, and authentic costumes by Nancy Smith (with the assistance of the 18th Vermont Regiment of re-enactors), all contributed to the production’s heady atmosphere.

    Lost Nation Theater’s “Ransom” paints a powerful — and entertaining — picture of Vermont during the Civil War.

    Lost Nation Theater

    Lost Nation Theater presents the professional premiere of “Ransom,” an original Vermont Civil War play with music, April 25-May 12 at City Hall Arts Center, 39 Main St. in Montpelier. Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursdays and Sundays, except May 12 at 2 p.m.; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $30-$15 (with discounts for seniors, students and youth); call 802-229-0492, or go online to www.lostnationtheater.org.

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