DISTANT AND RECENT PAST Exploring Portsmouth’s history through theater.
"The tide goes in, and the tide goes out," refrain the players of Lamplight Dialogues: A Nighttime Journey into the Ghost Lives of Puddle Dock. In the show's setting, the nearly 400-year-old city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the literal tide is the force of the mighty tidal Piscataqua River. But it's also the force of the fortunes and losses, guffaws and sorrows of the city's people. That is to say, the tide is history, a collective rush and wane of daily lives, meals, jokes, quarrels, and even baseball scores.
This tide is ever-moving, and so are we in the excellent Lamplight Dialogues, a three-hour "promenade theatre" event presented in collaboration between Harbor Light Stage and the Strawbery Banke Museum, which operates the preserved living-history neighborhood once known as Puddle Dock. Gathered into three small groups and led by actor guides (Doria Bramante, Karen Dicey, and Danny Gerstein) through candle-lit streets, gardens, parlors, and kitchens, we in sit in on six exhaustively researched, exquisitely acted encounters with the ghosts of old Portsmouth.
At one end of the evening's tide, our guide ushers us into 1789: Among earthenware mugs in the wine-colored interior of the William Pitt Tavern, innkeeper John Stavers (Eddie Pensiere) and his young grandson William (Michael Peele) talk loyalties with a fierce patriot patroness (Mary Lou Bagley). At the far end of the show's timeline, we arrive at 1942 in Bertha Abbott's Mom-and-Pop store (stocked with vintage candy bars, Ivory Flakes, and Cheerioats), where Bertha (Bagley) and her young assistant Leslie (CJ Lewis) talk sugar rationing, the opening of Disney's Dumbo, and the "prettification" of the neighborhood.
Playwright and Harbor Light founding artistic director Kent Stephens created this script after perusing myriad letters, photographs, and other documents, with the help of the museum's archivists. In each character study, Stephens also casts light on a larger issue of the day. In the parlor of the Goodwin Mansion, in 1864, the aging Ichabod (Pensiere) and Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin (Linda Shary) discuss her convictions about women's rights. And in the working-class Shapiro House of 1927, Russian Jewish immigrant and die-hard Red Sox fan Avrum Shapiro (Chris Curtis, with great sensitivity) is furious with his teenage daughter Mollie (Doria Bramante, radiantly) for being late for Sabbath. Their encounter explores the trademark American intermingling of cultures, both secular and observant.
In the Thomas Bailey Aldrich House, we find the revered man of letters (CJ Lewis) sneaking Madeira on his 16th birthday in 1852, the night before he leaves the family home for New York. He is caught by Kitty (the marvelous Whitney Smith), the robust, quick-witted Irish maid who raised him, and the poignant and marvelously funny scene, "The Miracle of Fiction," imagines Aldrich gleaning stories of her life that he will later immortalize in "The Story of a Bad Boy."
The collaboration's approach to the characters is red-bloodedly narrative, which means that imagination and human empathy -- and not just archaeological data -- drive the historical mission. It's not the only approach. In fact, a full half of the scene staged in the Keyran Walsh House voices a philosophical argument between our museum guide, a stickler for the primacy of material evidence, and the curator Beth (Shary), who favors an "interpretive" understanding of history. The scene dwells on the debate a little too long, but makes an important point about the value of emotional motivations as well as physical "facts" -- and then goes on to reward our patience with the dramatic (and thematically apropos) arrival of Keyran Walsh's ghost.