Review: ‘Tribulation Periwinkle: Civil War Nurse’ at Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

In commemoration of Women’s History Month, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s Victorian Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Tribulation Periwinkle: Civil War Nurse. Adapted and directed by Josh Hitchens, the solo show, performed by CJ Higgins in the beautifully restored 19th-century parlor of the historic house museum, is an original interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches. Based on the letters she wrote to her family from Washington, DC, during six weeks of volunteer service as a nurse in the Civil War (before she contracted typhoid fever and had to resign her post), the autobiographical stories were slightly fictionalized for publication in the abolitionist magazine Boston Commonwealth, and then as a book, in 1863, under the pseudonym Tribulation Periwinkle. But she is quick to remind everyone that her “story is not a romance.” It is an eloquent factual account, seen through the author’s personal lens.

CJ Higgins in a pre-production image. Photo courtesy of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion.
CJ Higgins in a pre-production image. Photo courtesy of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion.

Dressed in a black-and-white period-style nurse’s uniform and with  tightly-pinned hair, Higgins (who portrayed Jo March in the company’s production of Alcott’s Little Women, also directed by Hitchens, last May) fully inhabits the eponymous character, describing her experiences in the first person, directly addressing the audience, and making frequent eye contact with everyone in the room. Using only one antique chair as a prop, the performance is vital and animated, moving around the intimate space, gesturing and miming the activities in which the character is engaged, assuming the accents and demeanors of Alcott’s family, fellow hospital staff, patients, and chaplain she encountered, and capturing the expressive tone of the author’s descriptive language. With eyes sparkling, Higgins recounts the conversations that made Alcott laugh, the episodes that impacted her, and the people who most moved her. Then comes a change in countenance from a smile to distress, while recalling the catastrophic injuries and fatalities of the “brave boys” Alcott treated, knowing that she was but “a poor substitute for mother, wife, or sister” at their deathbeds, and lamenting society’s general “carelessness for the value of life.” Higgins’ affecting delivery of those heartfelt words and emotions elicited laughter, audible gasps, and tears from the audience, and underscored the power and importance of the tradition of storytelling to preserve our history and to touch people.

CJ Higgins in a pre-production image. Photo courtesy of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion.
CJ Higgins in a pre-production image. Photo courtesy of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion.

Preceding the opening on Friday evening, Hitchens, the organization’s Creative Director, gave a fascinating introduction to the author, her theme, and his purpose in presenting it. Before the performances on Saturday and Sunday, Dr. Patricia D’Antonio, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Barbara Bates Center for Nursing and editor of the Nursing History Review, sets the stage with a discussion of nursing practices in the 19th century.

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion’s Tribulation Periwinkle: Civil War Nurse is both educational and compelling. It honors Victorian Theatre’s mission of highlighting the cultural history of the period 1837-1901, and affirms its dedication to featuring plays about women and by women. The work of Louisa May Alcott, an early feminist and activist who was born in Philadelphia’s Germantown section (where the mansion is located), is the perfect choice, as is the talented team of Hitchens and Higgins to bring the era and the message to life. If you can’t make it to this limited one-weekend presentation, an all-ages adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is up next, from May 5-7, so you can bring the whole family.

Running Time: Approximately 65 minutes, without intermission, plus a pre-show introduction.

Tribulation Periwinkle: Civil War Nurse plays through Sunday, March 26, 2017, at Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – 200 West Tulpehocken Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 438-1861, or purchase them online.


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