In 1882, a 40-year-old Sarah Emma Edmonds applied to the U.S. Department of War for a military pension she claimed to have earned as a soldier 20-years earlier.
Did she really serve, undetected, as a man, for two years in the Union Army? Was she actually Frank Thompson of the 2nd Michigan Infantry Regiment? Was she a postmaster, medical steward, officer’s aide, and spy?
The Ohio Wesleyan University Department of Theatre & Dance will begin its 2013-2014 season with the world premiere of “The Secret War of Emma Edmonds,” a play written by Ohio Wesleyan professor Bonnie Milne Gardner and based on a true story.
While some champion Edmonds’ dedication and bravery, others dismiss her as a strumpet, braggart, and fraud. “The Secret War of Emma Edmonds” reveals her tense days in camp and follows her unrelenting quest for public recognition and personal retribution. Are her claims true? If so, why did she do it?
“What drew me to the story was the mystery involved,” said Gardner, Ph.D., a 1977 Ohio Wesleyan graduate who joined the university faculty in 1985. “There were so many unanswered questions. I wanted to root around in her life and in her head to find some reasons for her inexplicable behavior. She was way ahead of her time in many ways. Also, Emma’s story is not well-known and deserves to be told. Her Civil War tent-mate said it best when he wrote in his diary that she was the most remarkable character he’d ever known.”
To ensure the authenticity of the production, Gardner and the Department of Theatre & Dance contacted historical societies, Civil War experts, and professional re-enactors for insights on everything from holding a musket to following salute protocol. They also borrowed uniforms and props.
The production is being directed by Kerry Shanklin, a 1970 Ohio Wesleyan graduate and Equity actor. “This is a play for anyone interested in history, especially the Civil War, but also for anyone interested in people,” Shanklin said. “This is a beautifully written character study of a fascinating woman.”
The play features costume design by Jacqueline Shelley, and set and lighting designs by D. Glen Vanderbilt Jr. Ohio Wesleyan student Margaret Knecht, a senior from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is serving as stage manager. Knecht is using her involvement in the play as her senior project, demonstrating the impact of her OWU education.
The production will be the first to take full advantage of new cyclorama “cyc” lights installed recently in Chappelear Drama Center. Vanderbilt said the new lights are able to be “much smaller (lower profile), much more vivid in the colors they can project, and they use significantly less electricity doing so.”
Performances of “The Secret War of Emma Edmonds” will be held at 8 p.m. Oct. 4, 5, 11, and 12, and at 2 p.m. Oct. 13 on the Main Stage of Chappelear Drama Center, 45 Rowland Ave., Delaware.
To reserve tickets, call the Department of Theatre & Dance at (740) 368-3855 from 9 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Ticket prices are $10 for general admission and $5 for Ohio Wesleyan employees, non-OWU students, and senior citizens. Admission is free for Ohio Wesleyan students with a valid ID courtesy of a grant from the Wesleyan Council on Student Affairs.