When Stephanie Voss announced last summer that she was launching a one-woman theatrical portrayal of Celia Thaxter, no one at the dinner table blinked. We were, after all, out on the Isles of Shoals, the 19th century poet's turf, on a rocky barren island ten miles out to sea. Way out there in the pastoral world -- without phones, TV, bright lights, computers or even frequent showers -- it's easy to go along with anyone's artistic fantasy. Back on the mainland, however, such dreams are another kettle of fish.
Once one of America's most popular female poets, a century after her death, Celia Thaxter still has a rabidly loyal fan club. They are attracted, less to her romantic poetry, which has not always aged well, than to her personality, even to her very soul. She is fast becoming a symbol of the strong Victorian woman, not quite liberated, not quite oppressed. While running a household, raising children, nursing her aging parents, managing a large island hotel, and enduring a difficult marriage -- she managed to become a published writer. Celia's prose books are still fresh today. She painted, loved music and transformed herself into the central figure in summer salon of America's finest artists.
Amazingly, Stephanie portrays all this and more in under two hours onstage. Once a rabid Celia fan herself, the New Hampshire actor, after two decades of warm-up impersonations seems to be channeling the Island Poet. They are even beginning to look alike.
The current stage production "Of Pirates and Poets" begins, oddly, as an illustrated lecture, with Celia, as she does in her book "Among the Isles of Shoals" narrating a history of the nine islands. This time, however, Celia has a slide show, a giant screen and a laser pointer. She features the evocative photographs of Peter Randall, who happened to be sitting beside us in the audience. Despite the anachronistic technology, slowly, floating on the melodies of guitarist Ed Gerhardt, Stephanie sails deeper and deeper into the very heart of Celia.
The messy business of the poet's engagement at the age of 14 to her father's business partner doesn't come up in this performance. We hear little of Celia's mentally handicapped child, her divorce, the gruesome Smuttynose murders or her rumored romance with an aging John Greenleaf Whittier. This play is not about the "Hard Copy" details recent writers have unearthed. Stephanie, instead, gets right to the genesis and content of Celia's art -- how her art shaped her life and she shaped it.
Celia wrote about the Shoals because she had no choice. Forced off her beloved islands by her husband Levi's fear of the water, Celia struggled to be a dutiful wife. Landlocked in Massachusetts, she poured her homesick frustration into poems written "among the pots and kettles" of her domestic world. Stephanie Voss, who wrote. designed and financed this production herself with friend Sharon Stephan, fully understands her character's struggle to make art pay the bills. Later, when Celia is devastated by the death of her mother, the actress lets the fullness of her character's grief explode for all to see.
But mostly Stephanie Voss, isolated onstage, shows us how and why this woman loved these islands. She does it with a few beautiful photographs, some haunting music, the poet's actual words and her own giant talent. By making art out of the artist, Stephanie Voss proves once and for all, that Celia Thaxter is a richly complex character, worth every minute we are willing to invest in her.
Article and photos by J. Dennis Robinson
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
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