The Importance of ‘Independence’

By Ernest Kearney  —  As one devoted to the study of history, I knew of Mary Walker (1832–1919), but I confess, only dimly in being aware that she was the only woman ever to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  It was in meeting Kathie Barnes during last year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival that I found cause to delve deeper into the story of this fascinating woman.

Both Ms. Barnes and I were appearing on stage in last year’s Fringe. I, unfortunately, missed her production, but she attended mine. The one-man show, Ingersoll Speaks – Again! is based on the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll, the father of the American Free Thought Movement and one of the most remarkable figures in our nation’s history.  Yes, I’m sure most of you have never heard of him, which accounts for the tag line in the title of my show, “The Greatest American You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Well Ms. Barnes, who was preparing to travel back east to Walker’s birthplace of Oswego, New York to perform a one-woman show about her, had heard of Robert Ingersoll, and brought to my attention that Walker and Ingersoll were second cousins.

This was enough to have me cracking the books (please note not “googling Wikipedia”) to learn more about Walker and her history.

In light of what I learned of Mary Walker, Independence written and directed by Lloyd J. Schwartz, was entertaining in performance, if somewhat frustrating in conception.

Walker herself was a lightning rod of contention throughout her life, if it seems a reluctant one at first.

In their beliefs and practices, Walker’s parents, Alva and Vista, were progressive and revolutionary in an era and society that eschewed any hint of either.  They were also, like their kin Ingersoll, fierce free-thinkers who raised and educated their six daughters and one son in a fashion that flew in the face of the traditional practices of the time.

This upbringing would be reflected in Mary Walker throughout her life.  For instance, having to participate in the strenuous labor her family farm demanded, Walker found men’s attire less restricting and instilled in her a preference for trousers, over lace and petticoats, which she would never forsake.

As Walker, Barnes is extremely engaging and succeeds with style and intelligence in bringing Walker’s story before her audience as well as involving them in her struggles.

The problem with Independence is not its subject, but its focus.  To the point, there is a better story here than Schwartz is telling.

An Evening with John Wilkes Booth, also by Schwartz, stands in good contrast to Independence.

The former show, which featured the talented Stephen Spiegel in the title role when I last saw it, is far less problematic than the ladder.  Booth’s life was short (he died at 27), more clear-cut (he was an actor) and boasted a single key event (he assassinated Lincoln.)

Walker’s life however was longer (she died at 86), far more convoluted (fashion reformer, feminist-activist, abolitionist, surgeon, civil war combatant, ‘spy’, POW, prison warden, suffragist, Temperance Worker, author, lecturer, iconoclast, vaudevillian) and her life was an endless string of achievements and conflicts (fighting to enter medical school, heartbreaking marriage, rejection by medical profession, Medal of Honor winner, medal revoked, exclusion by other suffragists, etc…)

Schwartz has constructed his work as a short one-act which, with the limited amount of time he has, does not allow him to do justice to Walker’s full story.  But it is where he decided to place the focus of his piece, and a stage conceit he over-employs, that does the most disservice to his undertaking.

One of Walker’s greatest passions, and perhaps her first, was in dress reform for women.  Looking at the earliest photos of her you’ll find her clad in what she called her “reform-dress.”   Her choice of attire was also one of the points she was continuously attacked for all during her life.  This fact should not be ignored, but Schwartz makes it the primary point at the beginning of his piece, going so far as to have Walker ask for a female audience member to come up on stage so she can use her outfit to make her argument for reform.

The time given to this initial topic comes at the expense of far more interesting subjects like her war service, her novels and her later years.  Some areas are simply excluded like her relationship with law activist Belva Lockwood and her efforts to create an “Adamless Eden” commune for women only.

Certain facts are also brushed aside by the time constraints, such as Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas were the union officers that pushed for her being awarded the Medal of Honor.   Two men you’d hardly suspect of being behind such an effort.

There is also the matter of Schwartz bringing audience members on stage, which he does four times during the show, a process which wastes his valuable time and in three cases added nothing to the overall staging.

Additionally the one time this device has great dramatic potential—when Walker brings four women on stage, to read the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the beginning of the rights-for-women movement,—the impact has been undercut by the prior repetitions.

Nevertheless, Schwartz has chosen an excellent subject, and Barnes is perfect for the role.  Let’s hope he’ll do more with both.

(Featured Image —  Kathie Barnes as Dr. Mary Walker in Independence at Theatre West – Photo: Lloyd J. Schwartz.)

 

♦     ♦     ♦

 

Independence: The True Story of Dr. Mary Walker

With Kathie Barnes

Written and Directed by Lloyd J. Schwartz

Played during Hollywood Fringe Festival 2018
and is part of
the Drama West

Portrait of Humanity 2

One-Person Show series

 

For Additional Show Information Go To:

independencedrmarywalker.com/

 


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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