REVIEW: An Evening of Civil War Spies and Love Letters


August 15, 2013

Last night the Palace Theatre hosted an evening of Civil War history. This was most appropriate and timely, given last week’s presentation at the Cape Charles Museum finding Shore people complicit in the 1863 raid on the Cape Charles Lighthouse (Click for story). Last night included its own intrigue, with master storyteller Lynn Ruehlmann relating the tale “Spy! The story of Civil War Spy Elizabeth Van Lew.”

Elizabeth Van Lew was one of the most effective Union spies during the Civil War. Born to a prominent Richmond family, she lived with her widowed mother in a three-story mansion on Church Hill in the Confederate capital. Educated in the North, Van Lew took pride in her Richmond roots, but she fervently opposed slavery and secession, writing her thoughts in a secret diary she kept buried in her backyard and whose existence she would reveal only on her deathbed.


In a masterful, passionate, and detailed performance, Ms. Ruehlmann brought the pages of that diary to life. Leveraging her experience in theater and as a story teller, she used bells, baskets, and candles to bring Van Lew’s life to the light of the stage. Ms. Ruehlmann’s account was brilliant and fair, portraying the struggle that Van Lew felt. While in love with her Richmond, her Virginia, and her South, she was at the same time willing to sacrifice her love for her moral beliefs about life, freedom, and her unyielding passion for the promise of the Union (captured eloquently in her shadowy vignettes of Lincoln coming to Richmond after the fall).

Ms. Ruehlmann’s spy tale was followed by a story of love in the time of war, a Cape Charles original play. “Civil War Love Letters,” by our own J.P. Paré and Fran Loper. The story involves two lovers torn apart and ravaged by the war. The staging carved out regions of imagination, as the readers sat bathed in pools of light, holding the love letters, while offstage the writer read aloud. Each letter exposed the frailty and entropy of each person, as distance, sickness, and the humiliation of war slowly unraveled their lives, in the end leaving them only with the fraying strands of love.

Paré and Loper’s prose was clean and elegant, touching on the nuances of life, at once reveling in the lush memory of skin, hair, and touch, all the while acting as witness to the cruelty and hatred that war reveals. Each letter was performed over a soundtrack that laced the scenes with a distance and melancholy, yet even as disease, shrapnel, and occupation threatened to crush them, Paré and Loper’s lovers emerge and end the night with a homecoming and an embrace — a fundamental triumph of love over life.

This night of history, intrigue and love, as well this entire month of Harbor for the Arts, once again highlights just how important Arts Enter is to the fabric of this town. When you think about how much has been brought here this month, you just have to wonder how they did it — and it’s not over yet!



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