On the theatre stage the character rustled about in a hoop skirt and spoke words written more than 150 years ago to a husband torn away by the Civil War.
In the theatre audience the 21st century Navy wife sat and listened, struck by how easily she related to a woman who lived so long ago but who also had children to calm, worries to shush.
“I’ve had to console a crying child. You see yourself in these letters,” said Miriam Allred, a sophomore economics major at Chapman University who attended Saturday’s performance of If All the Sky Were Paper, the Andrew Carroll play that had its world premiere last week in Waltmar Theatre. Those letters could have been written today, Allred said.
“I could see myself in all the characters – especially the Civil War ladies,” said Allred, herself a Navy veteran.
Such are the universal threads that run through war letters, what author and playwright Carroll has called “the world’s greatest undiscovered literature.”
If All the Sky Were Paper was written by Carroll based on his New York Times bestselling books War Letters and Behind the Lines. In 1998, Carroll launched the Legacy Project – a national, all-volunteer initiative that works to find and preserve wartime correspondence.
But how did the play come to have its world premiere here? Chapman University’s John Benitz, assistant professor of theatre and director of the play, happened to read about Carroll’s project in National Geographic magazine several years ago, was captivated by the letters and their stories and became convinced that a stage play could portray the writers of those previously unpublished letters in a unique way. He wrote to Carroll with the idea, and a friendship and collaboration was sparked.
The result is a one-act play that features Carroll (played spot-on in Chapman’s production by student Garret Schweighhauser) as narrator. He speaks directly to the audience, describing how certain letters caught his heart or reflected recurring themes that surfaced. As actors appear on stage to bring selected writers to life, from wistful farm boys to those Civil War wives, the narrator moves a step or two away, becoming a quasi-audience member.
It was a format Benitz said he was eager to use for this project.
“There’s something of the essence of the letters that are believed and lived with an actor on this stage with you,” Benitz said in a panel discussion that followed Saturday’s performance, attended by a number of veterans and active-duty military personnel offered free tickets in honor of Veterans Day.
After the panel, Carroll said the resulting project was not just a fine theatre production but also a tribute.
“I just think they’ve done a brilliant job with it. These letters are very important to me, and I feel that the actors and John Benitz honored them in a way that is rather extraordinary,” Carroll said. “I think they pay tribute to the men and women who served.”
The play continues its run this week at Waltmar Theatre, Nov. 18-20. All shows are at 7:30 p.m., with an additional matinee on Saturday, Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and senior citizens, and may be purchased at the door on performance nights or in advance by phone at 714-997-6812 or online.