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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Civil War Comes Alive In The Play "Ransom"

Courtesy of Robert Eddy, First LIght Studios
Scene from Ransom

Lost Nation Theaterin Montpelier has opened its 25th season with an original play which is based on the letters of a civil war soldier from West Rochester, Vermont.

“Ransom” takes a startling look into the lives of soldiers, and those left at home.

“Ransom” grew out of a trove of letters and a diary written by Civil War soldier Ransom Towle.  They recount his enlistment in 1861, his capture by the Confederates, his remarkable escape while being marched to Andersonville Prison in Georgia and his journey back to Union lines.

But the play Ransom also focuses attention on the home front. 

In this scene, we hear a letter from a West Rochester resident Mary Jane Root played by Avalon Kann.  The letter  is also read aloud by Ransom, played by Aubrey Adams. 

There is not much news.  Only that my parents are finding it difficult to manage the chores here…

Another letter comes from Ransom’s father, who is the town’s postmaster, played by Ira Sargent. 

 Son.  You must know that although I think its right and necessary, I don’t love this war.  Certainly you know your mother thinks it’s the worst thing that could happen to her family.  The worst thing for this little struggling community.  But, I fear most for her, son, that she’ll worry herself to collapse. She’s not so strong as she seems. I don’t know how to help her.  I don’t know what I’d do without her. 

The creative team behind Ransom was led by Dick and Dorothy Robson of Hancock.

Dick Robson says that as we observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, attention must be paid to the costs of war. 

Robson says, “The story that I want to tell is the story of the loss that we have to commit to if we commit to war, that goes on and on, it doesn’t seem to change with the ages, that war and loss go hand in hand.”

Robson says he was deeply moved when he first read Ransom’s letters, which were discovered by Rochester historian Joe Schenkman, who, along with April Dodd, collaborated on a script.

Robson felt the letters turned historical mythology into flesh and blood reality. 

He says, “I got to know him as a person, and will never think of those solders again in the same way.”

Robson sees the play Ransom as going beyond illustrating the lives of soldiers. 

“Another aspect of the play is the effect on West Rochester itself, which suffered a lot of loss, both from soldiers who died, soldiers who came back disabled either physically or mentally, those who just went off to the west, or whatever, and the civil war was really the beginning of the end of for West Rochester as a town," Robson says.

In fact, West Rochester, Vermont no longer exists as an incorporated town. 

But historical accuracy was important to the creators.

Dorothy Robson tells of visiting the area with her husband, when a forest ranger gave the couple a tour of where the families in the play lived. 

“We saw the roads they drove on, we went to the graveyard where Ransom and others are buried, Robson says.  "We saw where Ransom had lived, and it was a beautiful summer day, and I think we just, at least I so appreciated the beauty of that area, that I wanted to convey that.” 

Vermont Civil War historian Howard Coffin saw the play Ransom when in it was originally produced by the White River Players in 2010.   

He says Ransom makes no attempt to glorify the Civil War era, and he was surprised by its emotional honesty. 

Coffin says, “ I saw some jealousy, some anger, even with the soldiers who had gone off to war for going off to war, surely that was a part of the civil war scene in the 1860’s, but I had never seen any work of art include that.”   

Coffin says that Ransom fills an important void, with historians just now turning their attention to the home front.

“It’s something we need to hear.  Because we go willy-nilly into wars time and again, not understanding what the human cost is.  This gets at some of it”. 

Kathleen Keenan is Lost Nation Theater’s artistic director. 

Keenan says that given Lost Nation’s history at presenting Vermont historical drama, Ransom was an ideal choice to kick off its 25th season. 

“We are very committed to being not just a theater that happens to be in Vermont, but to being a theater that is of Vermont.” 

Keenan agrees with historian Howard Coffin that Ransom shows how relevant the country’s Civil War experience remains.

“It asks us to remember.  It asks us to honor what came before, to take a moment and say it’s important that we honor the sacrifice that people went through to give us the country that we have today, to give us the community that we have today.”

Ransom will be presented at Montpelier’s City Hall Arts Center through May 12th.

Neal was a reporter and VPR's All Things Considered host from 2001 to 2014. He joined VPR in 1996, hosting VPR's jazz programming, including live performances from the VPR studios and the Discover Jazz Festival. Prior to VPR, Neal was a programmer and host for WNCS in Montpelier and WDEV in Waterbury. He holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College.
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