Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage (TRBOC) centers on Henry Fleming, a young Union soldier who battles his inner demons and eventually becomes a fierce warrior. Published in 1895, TRBOC is considered the first great war novel and has never gone out of print. Henry is portrayed by Thomas Schiavoni, a student at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, in the Boots on the Ground Theater production at the Southampton Cultural Center, which will run October 19 through November 4.
The cast also includes Christopher Levi, an Iraq War Veteran and Wounded Warrior as a Colonel, and Boots on the Ground founder Bonnie Grice as Ma. Consulting on the show is another veteran, Captain Joseph Bilardello, who served in Vietnam and is the Commander of the 67th New York Civil War Reenactors.
This show will be the New York premiere of Virginia playwright Catherine Bush’s adaptation of the novel. Grice found the work online last May and says, “It’s a beautiful distillation of the various themes and characters of the book.”
Historical accuracy is a high priority for Grice. Great attention has been given to collecting costumes and props that are true to the period. To enhance the historical experience, an exhibition of Civil War memorabilia will be on display in the Cultural Center’s gallery. This rare collection will be curated by Stephen Gould, in collaboration with the Southampton History Museum.
Why do this play now?
Grice: Anytime is a good time to delve into our past and learn from it and know that whatever “tough times” we think we’re going through today, stories like this provide a much needed reality check.
The technology, the recruiting, and the locations of war, have changed, what remains the same?
Levi: Young people fighting, old people watching; soul searching, missing family and loved ones, holidays, luxuries like regular hygiene!
Could this same scenario unfold on the battlefields today?
Levi: It 100% does every day. Fear is real, but soldiers grow [from it].
How have attitudes changed over the years?
Levi: Today, it’s conservatively estimated that 300,000 to 500,000 veterans have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the 12 years of combat in Iraq…I can imagine “the elephant” was much closer, and yet also much farther away, for all Americans during the Civil War.
Both Boots on the Ground productions have been period pieces about timely issues. Is this your goal for the company?
Grice: Yes. I started this little theater troupe to keep history alive, with an emphasis on the 19th century. [It’s] a personal passion. The timeliness is not necessarily planned. It’s just built into our history; it repeats itself. It’s exciting and informative to delve back into our past. And see how far we’ve come—or not—and to see the [audience] responses. I think we’re all craving more history. And not contemporized, but presented as accurately as possible.
How has it been working with a consultant, and an actor, who are veterans?
Grice: Fabulous. It was my goal to bring Chris on board. I met him through a mutual friend when he’d just returned from duty in Iraq. Chris is someone you don’t forget, even after a first meeting. I kept him in the back of my mind these past seven years. And when I decided to do Red Badge I knew I wanted him in the cast. He’s proven himself in one theater and now another. And he’s brilliant. A natural. And he’s given us all some meaningful perspective. War doesn’t change all that much. But he’s also learning more about what those guys experienced, and getting to know his 19th century brothers.
I also knew I wanted to connect with some local reenactors. And finding the 67th New York was a godsend. Their commander, Captain Joseph Bilardello, is a Vietnam vet. And he spent an entire evening with the cast answering questions drilling them and giving some much needed background on what life was like for a Civil War soldier. He also gave me pointers on the uniforms and costumes. I’m doing those, as well as producing and acting. I want to make sure this is as historically accurate as possible.
Boots on the Ground Theater is performing The Red Badge of Courage free for veterans and their families on Sunday, November 4, at 6 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Veterans can email Kirsten Lonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve their free seats in advance.