This spring, the Valley Mennonite Brethren CrossRoads Heritage Center (yes, that’s a mouthful) invited me to direct a production of Jordan’s Stormy Banks. I’d seen the play when my friend Heidi directed it three years ago, and it’s super interesting. It tells the story of Mennonite and Brethren (then called “Dunker”) pacifists during the Civil War. TL:DR: No one liked them. The Confederacy hated them because they (mostly) refused to join the military. They also opposed slavery and assisted the Underground Railroad. The Union didn’t like them because they lived in Confederate territory and were, therefore, the enemy. They were stuck in the middle. Some chose to join the army as medics and cooks (and face the abuse of their peers). Others went into hiding or tried to escape to Pennsylvania, Ohio, or Indiana. Still others left behind the teachings of their church and joined the army to fight for their homeland (and generally were effectively shunned for this).
The play covers a period of about three years, from the vote for secession (April, 1861) to the “burning of the valley,” (September, 1864) when Union troops set fire to the fields, barns, and mills throughout the Shenandoah, in order to deprive the Confederacy of food and the means to produce it. It was a period of incredible drama.
The script, by Elizabeth Beachy Hansen, is sensitive in a way that is unusual for these regional historical dramas. The characters have doubt. They have arguments within their own family. They are trying to lead their ordinary lives while dealing with extraordinary circumstances.
The people were pretty normal people. I kept thinking of these before and after images of Kiev, where a revolution exploded in the middle of a regular, modern city–a place I could imagine my family. People like us, their lives suddenly turned upside down and lit on fire. I kept returning to those images, that reminder that wars happen in the midst of average lives, people just trying to continue with the business of raising families and paying off the house, suddenly thrown, by men they’ve never met, into complete chaos. As we rehearsed, we kept circling back to the “normal people” aspect. These aren’t heroes or demons. They’re just people like us, trying to do the right thing. Focusing on that gave the play an emotional depth and truth that historical dramas often lack–and I was grateful for a script that supported that reading.
I was especially impressed with how the playwright used local stories in the play. Local blogger Harv Yoder shared some of them in the article he wrote to coincide with the play. They were compelling and dramatic stories, but based in history: A pacifist forced to go back to the polls at gunpoint to change his vote against secession. A conscription officer coming to a Mennonite church service to announce that all men between 18 and 45 years old would be drafted. John Kline writing a hymn while in jail with men who’d tried to run away to Indiana. A family making a meal for soldiers to convince them to spare their livestock. Hansen wove the stories into the fabric of the play so seamlessly that there were some bits I assumed she’d invented, and I was later surprised to discover they were from her research.
I also got to work with a sweet production team. As a director, working with people who are excellent at their jobs and whom I completely trust is an absolute joy. My stage manager, Amanda Chandler, had worked with me on two previous shows, so we’ve got a good relationship. She is great at sensing when I need her to intervene and when I need her to just chill out and wait for something to come together. David Vogel was the lighting designer (he also had a small role in the show), and I think this is the… fifth? sixth? show we have worked on together. We also attend the same church and have been on various committees together. There’s a lot of respect between us, and that allows for the work to flow easily and for us to handle criticism from each other well. We’re not gentle with each other–he will absolutely tell me when I’ve forgotten to think of some detail, and he is a master of details. But I know that he and I are working toward the same goal, and I don’t get upset; I just fix it or tell him why I chose what I did, and we have a conversation about it. It’s a good collaboration. Fostering those kinds of relationships takes time, but it is irreplaceable. Shannon Dove was the technical director, as well as an actor in the show, and he’s another one with whom I’ve developed a lot of trust over the course of several shows together. Matt Carlson, our music director, is someone I know from church; I was happy to get the chance to work with him on a creative project. Our costume designer, Rachel Herrick, was a new face, but we quickly incorporated her into the fold. She was a lucky find–super organized and dedicated, very good at what she did. The set design, by Phil Grayson, was a repeat of the design they used a few years ago. It needed a handful of minor adjustments, but it worked well. It was such a gorgeous design that I was thrilled to be able to work on it.
The music is an important and vital element to the play. A capella hymns cover the transitions and also set up the feeling for the next scene. They can even provide some ironic commentary on the situation in the play. Because hymns are so central to Anabaptist life, the songs made complete sense. Matt did some amazing work, which I don’t even have the words for, in helping the actors create the right moods with their singing and finding ways to experiment and push the boundaries of these familiar pieces.
The only problems I had with the whole thing had to do with the fact that they did this play only three years ago. I contacted many of the actors who had been in it then, but a lot of them didn’t feel like doing it again, even in different roles. I had to seriously beat the bushes to find actors; we started rehearsal with half a cast. The houses were (much!) smaller than we had hoped, and I talked to many people afterward who said, “I heard that was going on, but I just didn’t feel like I needed to see it again.”
It’s too bad, because my production was very different from Heidi’s. This is another hallmark of a great script–it can withstand many different interpretations. One funny thing is that I don’t ever see what I do that is unique as a director–my “director’s voice,” to use a very grad-school way of talking about it–until I see my work juxtaposed with another director’s. In this case, David started with the lighting design that Heidi had used for her production, and by seeing what things he had to adjust, I noticed many differences between my work and hers, that I wouldn’t have noticed if we hadn’t gone through that technical process. For one thing, she made more extensive use of the upstage areas than I did–I kept pulling the actors downstage, toward the audience. So David had to rearrange the levels to dim the upstage areas a bit and add more light further down. That was a surprise to both of us.
The actors I ended up finding were fantastic, though. I’ve rarely been this uniformly pleased with a cast, which is even more of a miracle, since only a tiny handful of them auditioned. Two of the women, Suzy and Jodi, were people I knew from very not-theater contexts (church and a mom’s group, respectively), but they were amazing actors. Apparently they’d both acted in college, but it had been a while. I’m excited that I got them back out on the stage again. Others were recruited directly–Dallas after I saw her in another play, Randi on Amanda’s recommendation. Some found me–unexpected evening phone calls nervously inquiring whether I still had spots to fill. I was so excited to get to work with all of them. They were really good! And, beyond that, they were good at some of the things that are the hardest–staying present in the moment, responding to each new piece of information as if it’s brand new.
A number of the scenes required real vulnerability and raw emotion. Some of the actors were very young, and it can be tricky to enter that space with a young actor. One of them, Corin, had a monologue about questioning God’s presence in the aftermath of a horrific battle. That’s some crazy tough material; he was only 15. But he was willing to work with me and be brave about it. That’s what it takes.
Working with such focused, smart, interesting, adaptable actors was a real joy, and after a number of productions where I felt, at times, like I was dragging the actors along behind me, this show was a reminder of everything that is fantastic about theater.
I was especially impressed with Robin, who played Sarah, the youngest daughter of the Mennonite family at the center of the play. She falls in love with an “Englisher,” that is, a person who isn’t part of the Anabaptist community. This is a serious transgression of her community values. And he is killed in the war, of course. Robin was only 13. The character is about 14 when the play starts, 17 when it ends. Robin is very young for the role. I cast her because I kind of had to–the actor problem. But I’m so glad I did. None of the other actors realized she was so young. She doesn’t have a very mature body–she’s not one of those girls who looks 17 at 13. But she was so professional and so pulled together and engaged and focused that she absolutely made me forget how young she is. I’ve rarely, if ever, worked with someone her age who had such an incredible range. She has so much honesty, and is so willing to experiment and see where the moment goes. I asked a lot of her–I treated her like an adult–but she absolutely rose to it. I look forward to working with her, and her brother and sister, in the future. She does come from theater stock; her dad was the lighting director, her mom directed the last production of this play, her sister played this exact role last time, and her brother did some amazing work as the brother from the family who decides to join the army and fight. But Robin’s talent is all her own. She’s very different in manner and in working style than both of her siblings (whom I’ve directed before), and she brings a tremendous amount of both talent and skill into the room. And she is, let’s remember, just starting high school. I can’t wait to see the work she’s doing by the time she’s old enough for college.
It was fun, too, that this play was a bit of a family affair. We had three out of the five Vogels involved. I loved seeing Corin and Robin on stage together; I remember meeting them when they were about five and seven, and they bickered and teased each other relentlessly. They still do tease a bit (they’re siblings, after all), but they work together beautifully. The main character of the play is the Showalter family. Robin and Corin’s rapport with each other was a core that the whole family system could weave around. They were supportive of each other onstage and off. We had other family elements, too. In the first scene, which takes place at church, we had a handful of little girls to fill out the benches, add their treble voices to the singing, and make it feel more like a real church. Two of the girls came with their grandma, who played the busybody neighbor, one was the daughter of the musical director, and one was the daughter of an actor. And, of course, the costume designer and I had our kids running all over the place more or less constantly. It was fun. I always have more fun working on tragic plays than comedies, somehow.
This show went well, and I was eager to have my family see it. I took Silas to a matinee, because he said he wanted to go. The day that I took him, Elly’s Sunday school class came to the show, so there were about six senior adults in the front row, who hooted every time she came on stage. I even heard one guy say, “Oooh, there she is!” Silas turned to me and said, “Mama, don’t they know it’s not like a movie? The actors can hear them!” I was, not going to lie, very proud of his theater manners.
I’m so glad I started my summer with this play. It was a joy.