Amelia, the gritty Civil War-set romance by Alex Webb that maps the journey of a young wife who disguises herself as a man and goes behind enemy lines to find her Union Army husband, is now a licensable property from Samuel French. The two-hander earned positive ink for its stagings in DC, New York and Milwaukee.
The published version includes the option for an expanded cast, though one of the charms Webb’s historical, picaresque drama is watching one actress navigate war-torn territory inhabited by a wide population — a Confederate soldier, a destitute Southern mother, an enslaved man on the run, a corpse, a girlish schoolmate, Amelia’s parents, etc — all played by one additional (male) actor. A vast canvas forms in the imagination of the audience, as it should in the theatre.
Here’s how Amelia is billed in the Samuel French catalog: “Amelia is a heroic Civil War tale of one woman’s search for her husband across the battlefields of America. The story culminates at the gates of the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp. In its two-hander form, Amelia celebrates the inherent theatricality of two bodies on stage creating an epic and vast world.”
New York City-based actor-writer Webb wrote the 90-minute play as a vehicle for his actress wife Shirleyann Kaladjian (playing only the plaintive and tough Amelia), with Webb himself playing the multiple roles opposite her. Many locations, moods and personalities are created by just two nimble performers on a spare stage. No sets necessary, unless a theater wants sets. The play would seem to be a dream for companies interested in American history, the Civil War, strong women characters and local star-driven shows.
Following its January 2012 world premiere by Washington Stage Guild in DC, where Bill Largess directed (and where it was a Washington Post Critic’s Pick that was also Helen Hayes Award-recommended), Amelia had its New York City premiere that summer in a unique site-specific engagement in the powder magazine of Fort Jay, a 19th-century military structure on Governors Island off the tip of Manhattan. (That haunted, lamp-lit production on the grounds of a real Civil War prison remains one of my favorite theatergoing experiences ever.)
The playwright told me that he got the idea for Amelia from research he conducted while preparing to perform in a regional theater staging of the Civil War drama The Andersonville Trial. He learned of women who disguised themselves as men to fight.
Of the Washington, DC, process of Amelia, Webb told me, “Bill Largess, the director, and Shirleyann Kaladjian both encouraged me to find a way to constantly take it out of the realm of a story told to us by Amelia and more into events that happen to her as they unfold, and in that way hopefully engage/invest the audience in Amelia’s journey at a different level. A good example: The scene where Amelia finds the body of a union soldier. It’s the moment when she decides to masquerade as a man in order to continue the search for her husband. How to take that from description to action? I ended up giving the dead Union soldier, life, so to speak, as a ghost that challenges Amelia to don the uniform and move forward in her search for Ethan. It worked not only in activating the scene but also helped tell another detail, namely that she is starving at that point and vulnerable to hallucination. It also gave the scene an interesting tension: Is there really a ghost? Or is her subconscious speaking to her, pushing her forward at a point where she has almost given up?”
Amelia’s earlier development included inaugurating the Davenport Reading Series sponsored by producer Ken Davenport and later in the Kennedy Center’s Page to Stage reading series.
Amelia became the first fictional piece to be performed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, accompanying Matthew Brady’s 19th-century photographs.
Following the DC and New York productions, the play was also produced in Milwaukee in fall 2014 by Renaissance Theaterworks. The resident Milwaukee cast featured Cassandra Bissell as Amelia and Reese Madigan as Ethan and others.
Filmmaker, playwright, director and actor Alex Webb is a recipient of the Panavision New Filmmaker Award. “Hove (The Wind)” (with Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis) has been an official selection at the Montreal, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, Boston, Palm Beach and Cleveland International Film Festivals. His first film, “The Girl in 2C,” received a silver medal at WorldFest – The Houston International Film Festival and was also seen at the Clermont-Ferrand Festival in France. His script, “Welcome to L.A.,” was awarded Honorable Mention in the Cinequest screenplay competition. He is currently in post-production on his feature film “To The Flame,” which he calls “a modern neo-noir,” which he wrote and directed. As a stage actor, he has appeared in theatres around the country. Webb was commissioned to write the book for a new Broadway-aimed musical about the battle of Gettysburg, which is in development. As an actor he has worked with Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Ben Affleck, Olympia Dukakis, Kevin Spacey, Eli Wallach and Melissa Leo among others.