'Anvil' tells John Brown's story after raid

September 17, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. -- It has been 150 years since abolitionist John Brown was convicted of treason for his raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., but this weekend Brown's fateful court proceedings will come to life in the historic Jefferson County Courthouse when a group of community actors stage the "The Anvil," a play by Julia Davis.

Often, retellings of Brown's story stop at his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, said Robert Willgoos, co-director of the play and history professor at Shepherd University.

Despite the frequent staging of Davis' play, too few people remember the trial that put Brown on the gallows and made him a martyr who inspired the Civil War, Willgoos said.

It is not every year that Brown comes to life again in Charles Town, mainly due to the challenges of performing in a courtroom with amateur actors, Willgoos said.


The last time the play was performed was 2007, said Bob O'Conner, chairman of the Charles Town Heritage Days festival.

"It would be nice to do this every year," Willgoos said. "Unfortunately, we are not professional actors, so none of us have the time."

O'Conner said the play is being performed as part of the 150 year celebration of the raid and the annual Heritage Days Festival.

Willgoos, whose theatrical background includes work in plays, television and film, said he and the rest of the production crew have been working since May to bring the play to life.

The greatest challenge so far has been reconciling with the set to make the play as real as possible.

Any actor knows the cardinal rule when on stage is never turn your back to the audience, said co-director Joyce Webb, a communications professor at Shepherd University.

But Webb said both she and Willgoos have violated that rule in an effort to make the play as realistic as possible.

While the play condenses Brown's weeklong trial into a short hour and a half, Webb said the goal has been to make the experience as authentic and as interesting as possible.

For the actors, it is challenging to authentically portray historical figures, said Thomas Trumble, who plays Hiram Griswold, defense attorney for Brown.

Webb, who also has an extensive background in acting, has been working with the cast as a voice and acting coach, teaching authentic dialects, mannerisms and posture to bring more subtlty to the play.

"Working with Joyce and Bob has made me a stronger actor," Trumble said. "They have such a good sense of the actors and what they need from them."

Little was recorded about Hiram Griswold, so Trumble said he has had more latitude than the rest of the cast when it comes to creating a character. But understanding the character is still the key to making the play convincing, he said.

Webb and Willgoos said they hope the audience leaves the play with a better understanding of the complexities of John Brown, the men who brought him down and the few who defended him.

"I think the audience will be surprised that they are as interested in a courtroom drama as they will be," Webb said.

If you go ...

What: "The Anvil," a dramatization of the 1859 treason trial of John Brown

Where: Jefferson County Courthouse, Charles Town, W.Va.

When: Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Also: Due to graphic scenes and language, the play is not recommended for young children. Tickets are available at the door or in advance by calling 304-876-1825. Tickets cost $15 for general admission; $10 for those 20 and younger and those 60 and older.

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