Voices of history: Chesnut's Civil War diary dramatized
Of all the voices that emerged from the South during the Civil War, perhaps the most trenchant, and literary, was that of Mary Boykin Chesnut.
'Civil/Uncivil: The Art of Leo Twiggs'
Dr. Leo Twiggs, whose Civil War-themed exhibit 'Civil/Uncivil: The Art of Leo Twiggs' opens Friday at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, now will deliver his address at 5 p.m. April 10, reflecting a time change from the original schedule.
The time of the dual address of historian and author Robert Rosen and photographer Rick Rhodes ('Post Civil War Charleston') also has been changed, to noon Saturday.
Daughter of a South Carolina governor, she was an uncommonly acute observer of the human pageant, a philosopher and humorist who, through her marriage to Confederate Gen. James Chesnut, had access to the key leaders of the war and the events surrounding them.
Her personal journal, published in book form, remains one of the foremost chronicles of the rise and fall of the Confederacy.
Embodied by actress Chris Weatherhead of the Actors' Theatre of South Carolina, Chesnut (1823-86) is restored to a palpable presence in Charleston's premiere of "Mary Chesnut's Road to Fort Sumter," running Saturday and next Sunday for three performances at the Footlight Players Theatre.
Directed by Clarence Felder, the hourlong play is presented by the Charleston-based Actors' Theatre in conjunction with the S.C. Historical Society.
"Mary Chesnut was a brilliant and incisive observer of human nature, steeped in politics from childhood, who became a feminist, humorist and chronicler of her times," says Weatherhead, who wrote the adaptation. "She also abhorred slavery. It is impossible to define her. Her journals have been called 'electrifying' and 'dazzling.' I believe she was a genius.
"Whether studying Julius Caesar's military campaigns or observing the behavior of all levels of society, she had a way of cutting to the core, or at least forcing her readers to think about various taboo topics."
Wed to an aristocrat who served as a lawyer and former U.S. senator before the war, Chesnut may have written from the perspective of her upper-class circles of Southern planter society, but her impressions conveyed an empathy for all social classes.
Weatherhead, who trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company in London and the American Repertory Theatre, has been a leading lady in theater, film and television for more than 25 years, performing in New York, Los Angeles and around the country. She co-founded the Actors' Theatre with her husband, veteran character actor Clarence Felder.
Weatherhead also co-wrote, co-starred with Felder and directed the South Carolina-based feature film "All For Liberty," a true story of S.C. history from the Revolutionary War era.
For the purposes of "Mary Chesnut's Road to Fort Sumter," Weatherhead focused on intrigues and controversies leading up to the first shot fired on the fort.
Faye Jensen, director of the S.C. Historical Society, was the driving force behind the project, says Weatherhead.
"Mary Chesnut was an extraordinary woman who lived through a fascinating time," says Jensen. "Her journals have been cited as 'the finest work to come out of the Civil War.' She was wonderfully observant and perceptive. Throughout the Civil War, she was in the center of action and provides great insight into the personalities of military and political leaders. We are delighted with Ms. Weatherhead's portrayal of this major historic figure."
With varied productions ranging from a dramatization of episodes in the life of Beethoven to "All for Liberty," the Actors' Theatre is known for its period work.
"It is a passion of our company to present history in a way that inspires our audiences," says Felder. "We are also very happy to have Jean Hutchinson as clothing designer. Her work on Civil War clothing is known for its extraordinary beauty and authenticity."
A reception, Champagne and Chocolates With Mary, as well as a book signing with celebrated biographer and historian Catherine Clinton, who wrote the introduction to Penguin Classics' new (April 26) edition of "Mary Chesnut's Diary," will be at the S.C. Historical Society, 100 Meeting St., after Saturday evening's performance. Tickets for the reception and performance are $50.