MSMT produces Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance

Posted Thursday, June 26, 2014 in Culture

MSMT produces Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance

An aging Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (center) orders the bayonet charge that held the Battle of Little Round Top in memory, 50 years after the event.

By Gina Hamilton

BRUNSWICK

Chamberlain: A Civil War Romance opened to acclaim Thursday night at Bowdoin College’s Pickard Theater.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Bowdoin rhetoric and religion professor when he enlisted in the Union Army two years into the Civil War and was given the rank of Lt. Colonel, in charge of the soon-to-be-fabled 20th Maine. The 20th Maine of the Army of the Potomac was seemingly everywhere, from Antietam to Gettysburg to Fredericksburg to the Rappahannock River to Appomattox Court House.

 It was Chamberlain who accepted the surrender of the Confederate Army,  Chamberlain who received a devastating wound at Petersburg, with notice of his death erroneously reported in the papers.  It was Chamberlain who commanded his small force, on Little Round Top at Gettysburg, and when, out of ammunition, he ordered them to perform a classic textbook maneuver  to fix bayonets and wheel upon the advancing troops from Alabama, who never saw it coming. They were able to take enough prisoners and capture enough ammunition and weapons to hold the line until reinforcements were finally sent up.

But the story of Chamberlain, with the exception of the Little Round Top fight at the Battle of Gettysburg, isn’t what Maine State Music Theater’s “Chamberlain” is all about.

Chamberlain is a love story. But love of what?

Chamberlain, played by James Patterson, fell in love with Fannie Adams Chamberlain, played by Kathy Voytko. Against the initial wishes of her adopted father (David Girolmo) they got engaged. Chamberlain went to Bangor Theological Seminary for his master’s degree, and when he returned, armed with a Bowdoin professorship, they married.

But Fannie knew that she was going blind and gave Chamberlain an out before the wedding; he convinces her that he will always be there for her.

Not many years later, however, history takes control of everyone’s lives, and Chamberlain and his two brothers John (Ben Mayne) and Tom (Sam Weber) are swept into the cauldron, over the strong objections of Fannie, who fears the coming darkness and wants Lawrence to keep his promise to her.

Lawrence and his brothers face Gettysburg together, and are forever marked by it.

Fannie’s fears, and Lawrence’s growing alienation from her, are a recurring theme. Chamberlain allows himself to be drawn away, to the war, to serve as governor, to the presidency of Bowdoin College, to replace the moment on Little Round Top in his life. Fannie, for her part, is deteriorating both physically and mentally, and ultimately sabotages Lawrence’s reputation to bring him back to her.

The scenery of Chamberlain was at once simple and imaginative, with a series of screens, moving wall panels, and framed paintings of Bowdoin’s chapel and Little Round Top’s rocky hillside.

Chamberlain ages during the play, and James Patterson is brilliant at taking each of the ages and creating a character with youthful  vigor, suffering from a wound that nearly caused his death, a stooped middle aged man, and finally, a very elderly man, about to die, 50 years after the battle of Little Round Top, from his ancient war wound.

One of the most touching numbers in the play is the song sung by Jebediah Logan (played by Mike Schwitter), based on an apocryphal letter supposedly written to Chamberlain, years after the war, in which the writer claims he was in a position to kill Chamberlain twice, but something stopped him from pulling the trigger. The song, called “Heaven Must Have Plans” reminded the audience of Chamberlain’s humanity toward the Confederate soldiers at the end of the war.

The performance is remarkable for its high degree of local interest – the Chamberlain home lies across the street from the theater – and because the war itself is having a 150th anniversary from 2011 to 2015.

But “Chamberlain” won’t be here that long. Performances continue through July 12, so get tickets soon.  Ticket information is available at www.msmt.org.

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