Theater preview: Civil War play will stick with you

If being memorable is a measure of a compelling production, the play “Ransom,” coming to the Middlebury Town Hall Theater on Saturday, Nov. 1, scores high. The scenes and the music have remained with me since 2010, the first time I attended “Ransom,” in the school auditorium in Rochester. The cast — all local townspeople — seemed to be still feeling it out, but the overall effect was that of a work destined to become a classic of its kind.
The story is told simply yet powerfully through song and a nearly bare stage. The narrative toggles between the experiences of Ransom Towle, who enlisted at 23 as a sergeant in the 4th Vermont, and the people of the hill-farm community of West Rochester, Vt., who anxiously await his news and his return.
With little more than a few chairs and some wooden rifles, “Ransom” fleshes out the impact of the war upon the home folks as they correspond with son, big brother, and beau, respectively. Issues such as the pull of patriotic loyalty versus an abhorrence of war, and the irreversible psychological effects versus the optimism and innocence of the next generation, are explored through dialogue, action and tableau-like representations.
The musical accompaniment weaves through the scenes, in the manner of the Greek chorus. Original compositions by Dorothy Robson and Jake Wildwood, a Rochester musician-composer, alternate with Civil War patriotic songs, culminating in the haunting, show-stopping “Virginia’s Bloody Soil,” sung by a solo woman’s voice against a blood-red backdrop.
The play grew out of a spark of inspiration through the combined efforts of Dorothy and Dick Robson, leaders of The White River Valley Players, Joe Schenkman of Rochester, and a group of amateur players, who spent weeks reading the parts, building their understanding of the story, and helping to shape the final production.
Schenkman had spent much of his youth in what is now known as the West Hill-Bingo neighborhood, near the tiny cemetery where Ransom is buried. He happened upon Ransom Towle’s letters at the Vermont Historical Society, and the impetus for this story grew from that discovery.
The next time I saw “Ransom” was at Lost Nation Theater’s production in Montpelier. It seemed complete, but in retrospect something was missing. That performance, with professional players, was moving and had its moments of power. After the performance several Lost Nation players expressed their admiration for, and perhaps a bit of awe toward, the play. You sensed they had never done anything quite like it.
But the White River Players’ performances had — and I’m sure will have — the energy and heart that comes with a deep personal love of the people and the place.
See you there.
Editor’s note: Julia Purdy is a freelance writer and a resident of Rochester.
“Ransom,” which opened a three-town run in Rochester last weekend, will be performed at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Call 802-382-9222 for ticket information. The show wraps up its run in Randolph on Nov. 8.

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