Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2008
I have come to really look forward to the annual mono-dramas produced in cooperation with Shakespeare & Company at Ventfort Hall each summer. The four I have seen – Morgan O-Yuki: Geisha of the Gilded Age, Dancing with the Czar and Fanny Kemble’s Lenox Address – each introduced me to a woman about whom I otherwise would have known little to nothing, three of whom had a direction connection with either Ventfort Hall specifically or the town of Lenox, and all of whom led a fascinating lives containing illuminating brushes with world history.
This year sees the return of Mary Guzzy’s The Colors of War: A Story of Love and Courage – previous performed at Ventfort Hall in 2002 under the title The Color of War – starring Susannah Melone as Anna “Annie” Kneeland Haggerty Shaw (1835-1907), the widow of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw* (1837-1863), commander of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-black troops to march into battle during the American Civil War.
In about 1853, before George and Sarah Morgan built the current Ventfort Hall, Annie’s father Ogden Haggerty (1810-1875), a wealthy New York City auctioneer and patron of the artist George Innes, and his wife Elizabeth S. Kneeland, built an Italianate “summer cottage” which they called Vent Fort (French for “strong wind”) on the same location. The Morgans moved the Haggerty mansion across Walker Street in 1891 when they acquired the property, where it remained until it burned down in 1965. So Ventfort Hall is the location, but not the building, where Annie and her Rob spent their honeymoon.
The young couple married on May 2, 1863, in New York City, had a seven day honeymoon in Lenox, and then went to the Boston area where they lived in a boarding house near Camp Reedsville where the 54th was training. Twenty-six days after the wedding, the 54th shipped out of Boston for Charleston, South Carolina. Annie never saw Shaw again. He was killed in battle on July 18, 1863. There were no children and Annie never remarried.
The couple married knowing that this might very well be their fate. Guzzy’s play, based largely on Shaw’s letters, focuses on the brief span of time between the couple’s meeting in 1861 until his death. The imagined situation is a gathering to hear an announcement from Annie on the day after her period of mourning has officially ended. The play leads up to and explains that announcement of an important life decision.
Annie was a very, very private person. She insisted that Shaw destroy all of her letters to him, and so we have few of her actual words left. This is the major flaw in Guzzy’s script, which, towards the middle, begins to feel like a reading from Shaw’s letters (he was, to the enduring gratitude of Civil War historians, a copious correspondent) rather than a play about Annie. During this middle period, Guzzy’s direction of Melone seems aimless as well, with Annie randomly charging about the handsome entry hall to Ventfort Hall to no apparent purpose other than to give audience members a crick in the neck.
But Guzzy brings all to a satisfying, and extremely moving, conclusion, and Melone’s excellent performance, Govane Lohbauer’s magnificent costume, and the Gilded Age ambience of the setting combine to create a very worthwhile 75 minutes of theatre. Melone, who has performed this piece at other historical sites since 2002, easily embodies Annie quiet strength, and she looks every inch the Civil War Belle (surely the north had Belles too?) in the lovely pale yellow hoop-skirted day dress Lohbauer has designed. I want to call the fabric "sprigged muslin."
Shaw wrote that he thought life in wartime was harder for the family members left behind than for the soldiers in the field, and Annie undoubtedly thought he was right. Guzzy gives life to Annie’s own upbringing – she and Shaw were both the children of staunch northern Abolitionists – and how that impacts her decision to marry despite the very real threat of heartbreak. She explains both the love between a man and a woman, and an individual and their country, as “complicated.” Annie and Rob’s relationship is complicated not just by the usual interpersonal foibles of humanity, but by the fact that they both knew they were an integral part of something much larger and more important than themselves.
Shaw was buried in a mass battlefield grave, along with many of his soldiers. It wasn’t thought necessary to give blacks and their families the closure and dignity of returning the bodies home for individual burial with religious rites. But there was national outcry that a white man should so interred. The Shaw family, Annie included, issued a statement that they did not want Shaw’s body moved and saw nothing dishonorable or improper about his burial among his men.
Annie admits at the outset to knowing little about black people, or slavery, or what the Emancipation Proclamation, the marshaling of the 54th, or even the Civil War itself would mean for the country and how she individually feels about it. By the end she has grown and learned tremendously from her personal tragedy and how her husband’s public life has affected national affairs. This knowledge brings her to her decision and the announcement that concludes the play.
Guzzy provides excellent director’s notes and background information – including handsome photos of Rob and Annie – in the program. I cannot recommend this show highly enough as a profoundly moving educational and emotional experience that helps bring you closer to the times and the people the ongoing restoration of Ventfort Hall strives to recreate.
The Colors of War: A Story of Love and Courage will run through September 1 at Ventfort Mansion and Gilded Age Museum, 104 Walker St., Lenox, MA. Performances are scheduled every Thursday and Friday at 7:30 pm, every Saturday at 4:00 pm and every Sunday at 10:00 am. Tickets are $25 per person with discounts for groups of 10 or more. Reservations are encouraged due to limited audience space. The show runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission and is suitable ages 12 and up, although younger teens will probably need a little preparatory history lesson to really enjoy the play. For further information and to purchase tickets call Ventfort Hall at 413-637-3206.
* The 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick, tells of Col. Shaw’s life and the events surrounding the marshaling and deployment of the Massachusetts 54th. Oddly, Annie is not depicted in the film, but the VHS recording of Glory and a collection of Shaw’s letters entitled The Blue-Eyed Child of War: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, well edited by Russell Duncan, are available for sale in the Ventfort Hall gift shop.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008