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When Playwrights Play With History

Lamplight_Dialogues00HISTORY MATTERS

Until someone invents a real time machine, Kent Stephens will do. His series of six "Lamplight Dialogues" places live audineces in the real historic homes of re-animated characters from Portsmouth past. It’s the ultimate intimate theatre, and you get to keep your clothes on. (Read more below)

My brain thinks I met Ichabod Goodwin and his wife Sarah last week. That’s not possible, of course, because the former NH governor died more than a century ago. But my brain insists I was there, sitting just inside their mansion on Islington Street. That can’t be either, because their house was moved to Hancock Street in 1963 while I was still in grammar school.

Playwright_Kent_StephensYet the mind knows what the mind knows. Until last week when I met the Goodwins in the flesh, Ichabod was a pallid bust with a blank stare and a bulbous forehead that sits on a pedestal in the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He never said a word to me. He was just some rich politician who made a killing in the railroad biz and backed Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War. Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin was a pretty woman of 20 staring silently from her wedding portrait painted in 1828.

Much has been made recently of Kent Stephens theatrical double-trilogy entitled Lamplight Dialogues. The name doesn’t do it justice. The six one-act plays swept the annual Spotlight Awards for best acting, best writing and best directing. One of those plays is about the Goodwins and it is performed in the parlor of the Goodwin Mansion at Strawbery Banke Museum. The other five 18-minute plays take place in five other historic Puddle Dock homes and shine a dramatic light on the people who lived there. If Kent Stephens isn’t a playwriting genius, then I’m not two payments late on my estimated income tax.


The Dead Zone

But this is not a column about theater. It is a column about how we interact with the past, which for the most part, is about our relationship with old buildings, old stories, old streets and the kind of old things on display in museums. In Portsmouth we live among the stuff that dead people left behind. It’s our stuff now, and we cherish it.

As tangible as these artifacts are, they don’t tell us much about the people who first owned them. The ancient dead, for the most part, are dead to us. Their epitaphs and records, their photographs and portraits, even their letters and journals rarely conjure an image that sticks.

Writers can get you halfway there with evocative descriptions and colorful dialogue. History re-enactors, film actors and Chattaqua-style speakers, the good ones anyway, can draw you even closer to characters Xeroxed from the past. But only an accomplished playwright like Stephens can put you right in the room with a living being transmigrated -- flesh, bone, blood and soul – from a distant time.


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Saturday, January 20, 2018 
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