Feature Photo: Laura Giknis, Ben Sheppard, and Damon Bonetti in Civil War Stories. Photo by Mark Garvin
Real words. Real voices. Civil War Voices introduces the audience to five real-life people and their actual words, brought to the Walnut Street Theatre via the show’s writer James R. Harris and his discovery of a diary kept by an ancestor during that time period. The discovery inspired Harris to dig deeper and find more authentic letters and diaries from other people who also lived during the war.
In Civil War Voices, we meet a narrator (played by Nichalas L. Parker) who tells us about these findings. We’re then taken back in time, immersed in the stories of Joseph Harris (played by Ben Shepard), a cotton planter and James R. Harris’ ancestor; Theo and Harriet Perry (Matthew Mastronardi and Laura Giknis), a young husband and wife separated by the war; former slave and friend of the Lincolns, Elizabeth Keckley (Jessica Johnson); and Joshua Chamberlain, a college professor/Union soldier (Damon Bonetti).
Each actor has performed on the Walnut Street Theatre stages before and can easily channel the roles they were assigned to play. While the characters mentioned above are the core of Civil War Voices, the six cast members collectively portray over 20 roles with quick costume changes and props on hand to help identify who they are each supposed to be at any given time. Sometimes their portrayals are somber, sometimes humorous, but always real.
Harris, the show’s writer, has performed in over 50 musical productions himself. With the help of composer Mark Hayes, they were able to turn Civil War Stories into musical gem, rather than a straight, serious play. I’m certain a version of this show without music would have been just as powerful, but the music really moves the story and creates depth to the dialogue. We hear and feel passion, sorry, despair, and joy as the characters sing songs written around or before the war. Familiar tunes like “Beautiful Dreamer”, “Amazing Grace”, and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” can be heard, along with many others to create the show’s historical soundtrack. Jessica Johnson’s vocals will give you chills (and on a personal note, I regret missing her recent performance in Oleanna at Walnut Street).
The set may seem cluttered at first, but as the stories move along you see why everything is necessary and needs to be within arm’s reach. It’s clever, actually, as it allows each actor to stay on stage for longer periods of time and react to what is taking place around them. We can envision battlefields, plantations, camps, fields, and many other locations that played a part in the war.
Civil War Voices is a unique musical experience. Each actor also plays musical instruments as well. There is no accompanying orchestra or band for musical numbers; these six actors are the band. I especially loved the banjo, washboard and upright bass. The audience is encouraged to clap or sing along at times, making the overall serious show a bit more lighthearted.
I could see Civil War Voices expanding to main stages across the US one day with more cast members, more stories, and bigger musical numbers. There’s so much more that could be told. I’m sure plenty of letters from the Civil War are still hidden in attics somewhere, so a follow up to this musical wouldn’t be unlikely. The small black-box theatre setting was appreciated though (especially here at the United States’ oldest theatre) and the audience could really feel connected to what was happening on stage. Couches and rocking chairs were on hand as part of the purposely dusty, old set but also for audiences members to sit in; making us a part of the show too.
Civil War Voices closes out this season at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence on Studio 3. Whether you’re just a fan of the theatre, looking to experience something a bit different than what you may have seen recently, or just want to learn more about the events that shaped our country, this is a wonderful show to see. I’m glad I got to enjoy this show and I encourage everyone to buy tickets before it closes on May 26th.