This year’s fall theatre and dance department’s production, The Secret War of Emma Edmonds, features the talent and skills of the cast, crew, and two Ohio Wesleyan alumnae. The play was written by theatre and dance professor Bonnie Milne Gardner ’77 and is being directed by Kerry Shanklin ’70.
The Secret War of Emma Edmonds is an episodic play about the life of a woman, Sarah Emma Edmonds, who disguised herself as a man by the name of Frank Thompson. As Frank, she served in the Army during the American Civil War. Each of the scenes takes place at a different point in Emma’s life, revealing her reasons for her disguise as a man, as well as her struggles with the dual identities. The play opens with Emma’s attempt to gain letters of recommendation for her Army pension. After this scene, the time period switches from before the Civil War to during the war and after. In each time period, she faces a different struggle, whether it be avoiding an arranged marriage or striving to have the title of deserter removed from her Army record. Gardner uses the episodes to characterize Emma and illustrate the effects Emma had on the world around her.
Gardner wrote the play last year and began preparation for the production last spring. She explains that she was drawn to Emma Edmonds from an article she read a few years ago. After further research, she became more interested in the character of Emma Edmonds.
“I found her more and more fascinating and her story compelling,” says Gardner. “I began to see how it would work dramatically.” She has written more than 30 plays.
“A lot of times, when I’ve done works that I’ve written or adapted, it’s because I was drawn to them as a director, but I couldn’t find exactly the script I wanted to do. This time it’s a little different. This is not based on another work…it’s an original script,” Gardner adds.
Also drawn to the story of Emma Edwards, Shanklin received a copy of Gardner’s script last year and was immediately interested.
“The way Bonnie wrote the play as a series of snapshots of Emma’s life, gave the play even more appeal,” she says, adding how much she enjoys working with Gardner as the playwright. Working on the play as a new work, rather than a play that has been performed before also was exciting for her.
“It’s so much fun to work with a brand new play that nobody’s ever done before.”
The play’s setting created an extra hurdle for Gardner and Shanklin to overcome. Since the play takes place during the Civil War, historical accuracy is necessary. Besides script editing, Gardner has been focused on ensuring the accuracy of the play’s historical references. Attaining authenticity of the costumes meant doing extensive research and referencing books and photographs portraying apparel of the Civil War era. Shanklin shared that retired judge, Henry Shaw, a Civil War re-enactor, loaned the department several jackets, bags, and a sword, all very helpful for the production’s authenticity. His costumes as well as assistance from local historical societies helped keep the clothing for the play in historical perspective.
Remaining performances of The Secret War of Emma Edmonds will be held on October 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. and October 13 at 2 p.m. on the Main Stage of Chappelear Drama Center. To reserve tickets, call 740-368-3855.