Actor finds local link to story of ‘King and I’

MIDDLEBURY — When Jennifer Wagner auditioned for a role in “The King and I” with the Middlebury Community Players, she never expected to find that the musical about a British woman in 19th century Siam had local historical connections.
But a chance trip to Manchester earlier in April brought the play, which on Thursday begins a two-week run at Town Hall Theater, a little closer to home. In Manchester, she stumbled upon the tombstones of Shoreham natives Asa and Lucia Hemenway, who served as missionaries to Siam (now Thailand) between 1839 and 1850.
“So I wondered if this was connected at all,” said Wagner, who plays one of the king’s wives in the musical. “I wondered if they would have known King Mongkut.”
The play depicts King Mongkut in a later stage of his reign, but Wagner discovered that the Hemenways traveled across the globe to serve in Siam with Jesse Caswell of Middletown, who, like Asa Hemenway, was a Middlebury College graduate.
Wagner also discovered that, according to the book “The United States in Asia: A Historical Dictionary,” Caswell was “Prince Mongkut of Siam’s favorite teacher” until he died in Bangkok in 1848.
And she said that places the Vermont connection at the crux of the story of “The King and I.” Mongkut had learned English before he became king, perhaps taught by missionaries from Vermont.
After Mongkut became king in 1850, he worked to Westernize the country — and hired a British governess, the central figure in the musical, for his children. His preemptive push for Westernization ultimately prevented the British from colonizing the country.
Of course, Wagner hurried to share what she had learned with the rest of the players. She said the children in the cast were especially excited “to think that someplace where they’ve grown up has this connection.”
To Wagner, this revelation brings the play full circle.
“What a small world it is,” she said. “Vermonters, even way back in 1839, were so worldly as to have traveled to Siam … and here I am, reenacting a part of history that Vermonters were a part of.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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