When Allan Gurganus wrote his novel, The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, he was probably not counting the number of ways it would be adapted for other media. But the book has already been adapted for film; now, after Jane Holding went to the author to request his assistance in adapting it for the stage, Holding has taken the one-woman show and made it her own. Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession is now playing at Manbites Dog Theater as a part of their 2009-10 season.
Mrs. William Moore Marsden, Lucille to her friends, was actually born in 1880, long after the Civil War had ended. But her marriage to the last living soldier in her hometown of Falls, NC, in 1899, and the 40 years she spent with him until his death in 1940, made her a veteran of the war as it was still fought in the head of her husband. Four decades and eight children later, both had grown to a cantankerous old age; nevertheless, Captain Marsden died with his boots on, locked in deadly hand-to-hand combat with an enemy he had grown to recognize only through the filmy haze of battlefield smoke and carnage. The confession we have come to hear his widow make to us is her part in the final scene, and how it came to be.
Director Katja Hill surrounds Mrs. Marsden with all her familiar things. In a set designed by Derrick Ivey, we see the old bed shared by the couple; the walls of the now-sagging house they shared; and the old ghost that still haunts the place, rapping on the windows, turning on the radio, or playing that damned marching drum.
But mostly we see Lucille. She appears to us first as the old matron she has become, mother of eight, and grandmother of the war. Once married to Cap, as she calls her husband, she could not escape it; it became a part of her life as surely as it was a part of his. She and her children heard all the endless stories, over and over again, to the point where her kids could correct their pa if by chance he should wander off the mark in any given tale.
Lucille tells us all this in the most matter-of-fact fashion. She gives us her Cap in a deep growling voice, and gives different voices to each of her children. Once Cap has had his stroke in 1910, he takes to his bed and never leaves it again. His voice takes on a sepulchrean hollowness.
Wisdom, it seems, comes to our elders through hardship. Mrs. Marsden is no different. She gives us small smatterings of wisdom as she tells us her tale. Stories, she would tell us, only happen to those people who can tell them. You don’t know you’re happy until, suddenly, you aren’t. Beware of feeling sorry for yourself; that hobby will bloom into a full-time job if you let it. These are pearls of wisdom that she has made as slowly and carefully as any oyster. There is sorrow as well as grit in this woman. The tale of how her husband blinded their fine, beautiful young son is heart-rending; and the running story of her beautiful hand-made “Christmas Coat,” as the family called it, would figure prominently in the final scene.
Jane Holding keeps us in the palm of her hand throughout the history of Captain William Moore Marsden, making him as real a character as if he were on the stage there with her. She wonders often during the show how she lived with him as long as she did, or why she ever loved him at all. The fact that she did, as deeply and savagely as he did the war, is perhaps the most telling confession of all.
Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession continues April 22-25 and April 28-May 1 at Manbites Dog Theater. See our theater calendar for details.