For his original musical, “War at Your Door,” playwright Tim Stevens takes audiences back 150 years to the final days of the Civil War in his native Garner.
Led by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, 89,000 Union soldiers marched on Raleigh, then a town of about 7,000, in April 1865. Skirmishes broke out in nearby Garner on April 12, 1865, and a day later, Raleigh surrendered, striking a deal so Union soldiers would not burn North Carolina’s capital to the ground.
Stevens, 62, high school sports editor of The News & Observer, is an avid theater buff. He has written several plays and produces Broadway Voices, which brings Broadway actors to the stage in Garner. His 70-minute musical drama, which reimagines an untold drama unfolding as war converged on Garner, will be performed at Garner Performing Arts Center Thursday and Friday.
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Stevens invited the Hall Sisters, a Garner singing group that has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry, to write new arrangements of Civil War-era music for the play and Collin Batten, a former member of the Blue Man Group, to help him direct. We spoke recently about his latest project.
Q: Tell me about the characters of your play and its major themes.
A: “War at Your Door” is focused on the day before Raleigh surrendered in 1865. It is written from diaries, first-person accounts, old maps. It’s actually more about people who are not in the military than those who are. We have a lady who nursed a Union soldier and never knew his name, and we have a widow whose three brothers were killed. It’s more about the humans than the fighting. There was conflict. There was shooting. There was dying.
Gov. Zebulon Vance in 1864 didn’t know if he would be re-elected, but if he wasn’t, he had planned to join the Confederate army and be killed. He didn’t want his children to know he was part of this surrender, and yet on April 12, he was willing to seek peace, primarily to protect the women and children of North Carolina, although he assumed he would be hanged.
The play also touches on the government of Raleigh in the closing day of the war as they try to keep a semblance of their lives. A delegation travels to Sherman to try to work out a way to keep Raleigh and Chapel Hill from being burned on April 12.
Q: You said the story is a lot about the personal, psychological lives of your characters. Today, we know about post-traumatic stress disorder. What was it like for those who were in the most brutal hand-to-hand combat then?
A: It’s the same situation that we face today with soldiers coming home. One in 12 lost an eye, arm or leg. They come home and their homes are devastated, and they wonder, how do we advance from here? It makes you think of the war in more personal tones.
Q: Did you have any interest in the Civil War before you started on this play?
A: A little. Most boys raised in the South have heard of the Civil War.
My mother’s great-grandfather was killed during the war. One day she comes home from school and says, we just learned about this great man called Abraham Lincoln, and her grandfather replies, “That was the man that killed my father.”
So to him, Abraham Lincoln is a very different man than he is to us.
Not many people know about these (end-of-war) events, and it’s not in the textbooks. That’s why we’re doing this play. While we have detailed records on the start of the war, the records near the end of the war are not nearly as detailed because everyone wanted to go home.
I love theater. I write a play every summer. I’ve put shows on tour in eight states. A few years ago, I got a crowd in Ashtabula, Ohio, showing my play, “The Ashtabula Train Disaster.” It’s based on the songs of Philip Bliss, who died there. (The theater) was almost full! So I thought, maybe I could do this for a Civil War play. So if this goes well, I’d like to do one of these a year.
Q: As part of your research, you recently went to your first Civil War re-enactment.
A: Yes. And one of the coolest things was that I really got a different perspective of things. I was there when the cavalry came by, and it just hit me how frightening and devastating it is to have 50 or 60 men on horseback coming at you. It makes you wonder, if called upon, would you have courage to stand up and walk toward a group of men shooting at you? You get a greater appreciation of the courage of these people.
Q: Yes, and that’s the question. What happens if the Confederate army tried to make their final stand?
A: Raleigh would have been destroyed. The buildings would be razed. One of the quotes in the play is from William A. Graham, who said something like “is it better for a besieged fortress to face the dishonor of surrender or wait to be put to the sword.” And that’s the challenge the government was facing. How much more do we have to absorb for our honor?
Q: There are 13 monologues, and you’ve also brought in the Hall Sisters?
A: I’m really excited about the Hall Sisters, who have performed at the Grand Ole Opry. They’re really talented. They’ve rearranged old music for the play, and it is amazing what they’ve done. The music really contributes to the emotions of the play.
Collin Batten was in Blue Man Group for nine years, and he’s come down to direct it, so he’ll bring a level of professionalism to it. He’ll brush it up.
Q: People often still struggle with how to think about the Civil War. Some people look back with a sense of nostalgia for the lost cause. Others are more critical, thinking that the issues would have come to a head. Where does your play fall on that spectrum?
A: We’re trying to put ourselves in that spectrum. Ernest Dollar, at the Raleigh City Museum, worked with me, and his big push is: How will the Civil War be interpreted 50 years from now? He thinks there won’t be that nostalgia or looking back, but it’ll be the moment that we look at the question (of slavery that) the founding fathers couldn’t handle. But there’s only so much you can do in an hour.
I thought we would entertain but really try to make them think. This has humor, but really, how much better things are than they were, and an appreciation of what happened. One of the characters ends saying: “I feel no need for revenge, just regret.”
What: “War at Your Door,” musical by Tim Stevens
Where: Garner Performing Arts Center, 734 W. Garner Road
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Info: 919-661-4602 or GarnerPerformingArtsCenter.com