Thursday, January 29, 2009

Theater feature: 'Bridegroom' playwright found story in Civil War families

Playwright Catherine Trieschmann.

By Hap Erstein

The irony of Catherine Trieschmann’s The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock, a post-Civil War tale of a romance and revenge, is that the playwright began with virtually no interest in The War Between the States.

She started writing the historical drama, which has its world premiere Friday evening at Manalapan’s Florida Stage, in 2000, while the now 34-year-old Trieschmann was doing graduate work at the University of Georgia and living in her parents’ basement.

“I really wanted to write a play for that community, and they’re still fighting the war, of course,” she says. “And that would be fine except I hated the Civil War. I just wasn’t interested in it.”

Still, she went on a road trip of Southern battlefields with her then-boyfriend, now-husband. “I went on this quest and I was just bored,” Trieschmann sighs. “Because all they talk about is military strategy, battlefield stuff, and I just couldn’t get myself interested in that.”

What she missed on her battlefield tour were descriptions of the people of the time, which she found on a chance stop at the Museum of Appalachia in Knoxville, Tenn. There, at an exhibit on the Civil War in Appalachia, she became hooked on the personal side of families torn by war and states largely split over the issue of Secession.

“I was struck with how different it was in the mountains. It was a very isolated part of the state,” she says. “The poor farmers were Union, if they were political at all. They only cared about their little livelihood, not about Secession. And they hated the Confederacy, because they kept drafting all their men."

She found the kernel of her play in a museum caption that told of how the women would whisper the names of their enemies into their sons’ ears, long after the war had ended, saying things like, “Avenge me.” From that idea, she worked backwards, inventing a story of a blind girl who lived in Blowing Rock, N.C., a tall tale-spinning outsider known only as Bridegroom and the girl’s mother, who lost a son in the war.

Although Florida Stage is giving the play its professional debut, it has been in print -- in a very different version -- for the past five years. It first met an audience in a university production, as her master of fine arts thesis project. A Georgia theater company was so taken by the script, it submitted the play to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it won the Weissberger Award.

"It’s not the Pulitzer, but it’s pretty decent,” says Trieschmann. “It was $10,000 and publication,” by Samuel French Inc., a leading theatrical licensing firm.

The current version made its way to Florida Stage when Trieschmann’s agent sent it here. Producing artistic director Lou Tyrrell responded to it quickly, inviting the playwright to showcase it in last spring’s 1st Stage New Play Festival.

“The audience loved my play,” reports Trieschmann. “And at the after-party, Lou came up to me and asked if they could produce it. So I left on a huge high.” Because of other theaters that attended the festival, The Bridegroom of Blowing Rock got subsequent readings in Sarasota and Orlando.

After the Florida Stage premiere, it will have another full production this summer at Greenbrier Valley Theatre in West Virginia. It is no coincidence that Cathey Crowell Sawyer, who is staging the play here, is the artistic director at Greenbrier

Ultimately, Trieschmann does not think of what she created as a war play.

“It’s certainly a family struggling with the after-effects of war, but it’s a play about how people rebuild their lives, or fail to, more than it is about war itself,” she says.
“I think this play is transporting. It really takes you to another place and time. It’s also very funny. So it’s a war play that’s not a war play.”

THE BRIDEGROOM OF BLOWING ROCK, Florida Stage, 262 South Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Continuing through March 8. Tickets: $42-$45. Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

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