Comrades Mine: Emma Edmonds of the Union Army
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|City Lit Theater presents|
Emma Edmonds of the Union Army
Review by Lawrence Bommer
An unsung heroine, Emma Edmonds certainly deserves a play, especially when you realize that almost half of Chicago actor/writer Maureen Gallagher’s world-premiere, two-act historical drama we see her as Franklin Thompson: This Michigan “man” served with distinction for two years in the Union Army, working as a sharpshooter, nurse, courier, spy and soldier during such battles as the First and Second Bull Runs, Antietam, the Peninsula campaign, and finally Fredericksburg. (In Kentucky “Franklin” deserted rather than risk exposure as a woman by being treated for the bouts of malaria that would ruin her health until her death in 1893.)
Closing its 33rd season, City Lit Theater’s third installment in their ambitious “Sesquicentennial Project” focuses on this remarkable modern Mulan. She was one of over 400 women who, not content with a petticoat patriotism, secretly served their nation as men, dodging bullets and avoiding exposure as they did their duty. Alas, they often received no acknowledgement, let alone pension, for heroism – like Emma’s infiltrating the enemy lines in female attire; some 11 times, we’re told.
Emma Edmonds stands out because she wrote a somewhat dubious book about her service and also demanded the same veterans’ benefits as the boys she served with, many of whom supported her petition. Insistently, Gallagher’s play alternates between Edmonds’ exploits–sadly reduced to flashbacks when they should be the main story—and the later tale of two clerks who discover her petition and shepherd it toward a successful resolution. (That meant 34 years of getting the federal bureaucracy to understand her real reasons for “deserting” and restoring Franklin’s expected pension of $12 a month.)
No feminist icon but certainly a groundbreaker, Emma was a religious Abolitionist who identified with men but later became a dutiful wife and mother. Her one love affair during wartime turned out much worse than the play depicts: Far from gently telling her that he had a fiancée, in fact this fellow soldier Jerome John Robbins (Bryan Breau) doggedly opposed her case until she finally got her just rewards in 1886.
Apart from the constant shifts between 1861-62 and 1882-1884 that slow down the play’s momentum and turn her wartime experience into an illustrated lecture, the second act is top-heavy with affidavits and testimony leading to the inevitable resolution of an honorable discharge. (There’s also a bit too much “gee whiz” wonderment over her camouflage, with the opening night audience sometimes confusing this supposedly serious offering with “Victor/Victoria” or “Tootsie.”) A bright contrast to this legal labyrinth is the 30th reunion of Emma’s Second Michigan Infantry, which, though still branded as a deserted, she attended in triumph, letting her comrades finally see the Emma who hid behind Franklin. At 140 minutes the play is also too long, with excessive small talk between the clerks (affable Manny Buckley and Nate Santana) more filler than fact.
But director Anna C. Bahow keeps the overwritten drama flowing like the Mississippi at springtide. Justine C. Turner anchors her Emma/Franklin in a very believable patriot and a brave adventurer. The very capable male ensemble evoke the camaraderie of Americans in arms and hint at the carnage of combat and the disillusionment of life after war.
The play’s title comes from the great Walt Whitman, another Civil War nurse who had his own gender complexity: “…Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep.” He kept that faith. So does City Lit Theater.
Comrades Mine continues through May 19th at City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $28.50, and are available by phone (773-293-3682) or online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at CityLit.org. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Tom McGrath
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