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BC Students, Theatre Dept. Faculty Member Stage Play Based on Couple's Korean War Letters


CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (August 2012) — Boston College Theatre Department lecturer Susan Thompson brought to the stage the moving correspondence shared between her parents during the Korean War, with assistance from BC students Alexandra Lewis ’14 and Matthew Giggey ’15.

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Written by Thompson, the play— Unforgettable: Letters from Korea, which brings to life the young couple’s love letters, prior to their marriage—was performed last month at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, DC. The production was staged as part of the Department of Defense's Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War and the Gathering of Korean War Veterans. [More at http://koreanwar.defense.gov/ ]   

Supported by BC Undergraduate Research Fellowships, Lewis and Giggey worked with Thompson to transcribe and research the archival letters written during the war between infantry platoon leader Dwight Thompson and Cleora Barnes, a University of Connecticut senior.

The BC students traveled to the nation’s capital for the performance with Thompson and the Boston-based Pilgrim Theatre Company, of which she is one of three core artists. Directed by Pilgrim member Kim Mancuso, the cast featured other actors and musicians from the troupe and Lewis as the protagonists’ daughter. The show interweaves her memories with portrayals of Dwight and Cleo (who is played by Thompson), both young and old.

Appropriately, the production had its genesis at BC’s 2011 Veterans Day service, when Thompson—immersed in her parents’ letters—attended the ceremony and met the Korean War Commemoration Committee director. A plan resulted to stage the play as part of the nation’s anniversary events, which run through 2013.  

Lewis and Giggey sometimes were the first to read the letters during their work on the project. They also “collected images and maps that help us more clearly lay out where Dwight and Cleo were at any given month,” according to Thompson.

“I had a wonderful time working with Susan and Alexandra on such a unique and interesting project,” said Giggey. “It is an incredible feeling that I helped to create a play with such great significance. It was clear to me that the veterans really appreciated our work and it was fascinating to hear their stories. Getting to work with professionals at Arena Stage was an educational experience and further strengthened my love of the arts.” 

In Washington, the students had the opportunity to meet the war veterans and to attend a special ceremony for the Korean War at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the play’s program, Thompson writes: “My parents’ love for each other was forged, in part, by their separation during the Korean War. So were essential elements of who they became. During 1953 and 1954 they grew up. My mother discovered a life-long love of city planning and historic preservation that would sustain her through multiple moves and two wars.”

Because “the Korean War is often called ‘The Forgotten War,’ Thompson notes, “we are playing with the idea of forgetting and remembering.” A depiction of Cleo at age 70 with Alzheimer’s and Dwight caring for her at age 74, she explains, is “a parallel to being in the trenches during the war. But most of the show is the young couple, very much in love and separated by war.”

Her parents were married just days after her father’s return from Korea in August, 1954.

“I am so honored to be able to perform for the veterans,” she adds. “Many of them are over 80 [years old]. I have reconnected with some of the men my father served with in Korea and heard first-hand about the conditions in the trenches. They have even told me stories about my father that I have never heard.”

According to Thompson, “Alex was perfect for the ‘daughter’ character, not only because she is a talented actress, but because she knew the material and had put all those hours into the letters.” A theatre major with an American Studies minor, she is the daughter of actors David Anderson Lewis, of BC’s Information Technology Services Department and Patricia Riggin, a Theatre Department faculty member.  

Thompson describes Giggey as “a tech wiz and so enthusiastic. He built a power-point slide show for the piece based on archival family and other photos. He is the ‘I can do it’ crew member.” The Carroll School student was a technical designer for the production.

Asked to speculate on what her late parents would think of the play, Thompson says: “I think they kept these letters and treasured them because they were part of their history. My father and mother both loved history and I think they realized, even as they were writing, that those were momentous days.”

She also has a cache of correspondence between her parents from the Vietnam War, “when they were married and my mom had four children. The Vietnam letters will be another project.”

Support for the play was provided in part by the Boston College Theatre Department, the BC Undergraduate Research Fellows Program, Commonwealth Schools Hughes’ Grants (2011 and 2012), Annie Malroux and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

 

Rosanne Pellegrini, Office of News & Public Affairs, rosanne.pellegrini@bc.edu