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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Two Amelias star at the National Portrait Gallery

One of many occupations of women during the Civil War was that of spy.  Pictured is Belle Boyd of Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) and Front Royal, Virginia who became a Confederate spy after a Union soldier denounced her mother. Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Was it coincidence that two "Amelias" opened at the National Portrait Gallery only days apart?

And “lost” persons are and were a central role in each?

There is One Life: Amelia Earhart now through May 27, 2013, and for one night only in the Gallery's Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, there was Amelia: A Story of Abiding Love in the Civil War, a staged presentation about a woman in search of her husband, a Union soldier fighting somewhere between Pennsylvania and South Carolina in the 1860s.

According to the playwright, Alex Webb, who starred as the husband of Amelia, the play is based on the 400 to 500 women who impersonated soldiers during the war.

In commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the National Portrait Gallery seeks to examine the role of women during the period of which Amelia played a role.   

Shirleyann Kaladjian (Webb's real-time wife) was "Amelia" who wanders from Gettysburg to battlegrounds down South, in search of "Ethan" (Webb), ending her journey at Andersonville, Georgia, the site of the notorious Confederate prison.

Several themes run concurrently in the play:  The search for love, the audience education about women in the Civil War,  and the horrors of Andersonville, not unlike those at the Union prison in Elmira, New York, where about the same number of inmates died.   

It was the first fictitious production of the National Portrait Gallery's Cultures in Motion performing arts series, "designed to educate, entertain, and promote mutual understanding of [America's] diverse cultures" and undertaken for this production with the Washington Stage Guild.

Webb and Kaladjian delivered powerful performances over the 90-minute playing time, remarkable in content and effect, propelling some members of the audience to leap to their feet in eager applause at the end.

And the play may be entitled Amelia but the show was all about "Ethan," one of many characters Webb portrayed.

His metamorphosis on stage from person to person without costume or scene change was one for acting classes, nothing short of exceptional since every person he became was lifelike, due to Webb's uncanny ability to transform people, mannerisms, voices, and inflexions. 

From turning around in a bent position and suddenly becoming Amelia's frail mother or her limping dad in the same scene,  to a Confederate guard, a sashaying Northern belle in a "ball gown" with 15-foot circumference, to a doctor, an escaped slave, Rebel soldier, guard, and more, Webb effected the personalities with stunning skill.

The couple moved frequently around the stage against a minimal but strong set design (a fence post, a bench and chairs, by Carl F. Gudenius) and, in one scene, they walked along a path strewn through the audience, talking the whole time.

Flashing throughout the production as backdrop were actual
Civil War scenes of battlegrounds, soldiers, farm and social life.

Taped music from the era under the direction of Stowe Nelson added to the mood.

"Every woman has got to find a husband," Amelia's mother tells her daughter, a refrain I heard more than 100 years later from the lips of my own mother. 

I do declare, Miss Scarlett, times have changed. 

Andersonville today is a National Historic Site dedicated "to all American prisoners of war throughout the nation's history."

Bill Largess directed; Jewell Robinson produced; Michael Kramer served as technical director and stage manager; and Sigridur Johannesdottir was costume designer.

The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and G, NW and is open from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. daily, except Christmas Day.  The closest Metro station is Gallery Place/Chinatown, or one may walk from Metro Center, a few blocks away.  For more information, call 202-633-8300.

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