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The life and motivations of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was told in a two-act musical workshop, “The Battlefields of Clara Barton,” this weekend on the stage of Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. The production, developed in partnership with the American Music Theatre Project, began pre-pandemic in a creative workshop at Northwestern, followed by three workshops at the University of Texas, and one with Austin Playhouse at the Paramount Theatre in Texas. Retaking the stage at the Wirtz this weekend was very much a homecoming for the still-evolving show.
Written by Suzan Zeder (book and lyrics) and Jenn Hartmann Luck (music and lyrics) and directed by Rives Collins, the production unfolds on a spare set (Milo Bue and Hannah Clark, set design) with nine female actors: eight Northwestern students and one young girl, 11-year old Bella Ouellette. Bella and three Northwestern seniors – Ruby Gibson, Maddie Novak, and Claire Kwon – portray Clara at different stages of her life. They are individually terrific, with strong voices, emotive expressions and convincing stage presence. Collectively, along with the rest of the cast, they are powerful and inspiring, demonstrating the strength and beauty of sisterhood, literally and figuratively.
The musical reveals an inner life of Clara Barton that few knew or could imagine. She had a tense relationship with her mother, who frequently berated her. Her older sister, Dolly, with whom she was very close, suffered from mental illness her entire life and died when Clara was in her 20s. Clara suffered from depression throughout her life and worked voraciously, almost manically, in order to keep feelings of worthlessness and suicidal ideation at bay.
Clara’s willingness to run toward war, to run into battle to care for the wounded and dying, was inspired largely by her sister Dolly. To Clara, Dolly was the brave one in the family, the one who faced a battle every day of her life. Clara was driven to make certain her life had meaning and that she would be remembered after her death. She was nicknamed “the Angel of the Battlefield” and bedecked with medals and honors from dozens of cities, states and countries, yet emotionally and psychologically, she hungered for more.
There are 17 songs in the show with robust instrumental support offstage (Cameron Miya, Musical Director). The program notes describe the score as “contemporary folk-rock.” The lyrics are clever, enhance the storytelling, and highlight the gorgeous voices of the cast whether as solos or rousing songs from the entire company. If available as a recording, some would no doubt become breakout hits.
The writers and dramaturgs weave the production around true events taken from Clara’s life, using passages from her letters and diaries, newspapers and other ephemera. The production, by necessity, discusses difficult subjects including war, death, grievous injuries, depression, suicidal ideation, bullying, political corruption, demonization of the poor, class struggles and struggles between mothers and daughters. These universal and evergreen issues keep the production contemporary and fresh. It is immensely relatable even though the events being described took place over a hundred years ago.
Dec. 25, 2021 will mark the 200th birthday of the celebrated nurse, humanitarian and civil rights activist. As “The Battlefields of Clara Barton” edges closer to a full-fledged nonworkshop premier, the timing could not be better to introduce this inspiring icon to a new generation.