Yesterday, after shipping out a copy of my book to Nikola Tesla’s grand-nephew William Terbo, I took a break and headed downtown to Washington DC. I had read in the “Wicked Local” online version of my hometown paper, Ipswich Chronicle, that The Actors Company would be performing Within These Walls at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I had to go.
For those who didn’t know it, an entire house once located at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich was disassembled in 1963 and reconstructed at the Smithsonian. The exhibit is one of the largest objects in their collection, and is displayed such that visitors can look into the various rooms of the house and experience the respective lives of five residents over the years.
Within These Walls was written by playwright, actor, and director J.T. Turner, who was asked by the Smithsonian to tell the stories of the people who lived there. As the house itself looms behind them, the play opens with the two Ipswich housewives, Kay Thompson and Helen Lunt, pleading with the demolition man not to tear it down. Reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as the workman settles in for the night intending the demolition to start the next morning, he begins to hear the house reveal its history. As he questions his sanity, residents of the house appear in sequence representing major historical time periods.
It begins with Abraham Choate building the house in 1760 for his growing family. He is followed by Abraham Dodge, a revolutionary war patriot who explains how Ipswich came to be known as “The Birthplace of American Independence” (hint, it has to do with being the first to refuse to pay taxes to the British crown). Ahead to the Caldwells, active in the fight to abolish slavery prior to the Civil War, then to the Lynch family of Irish immigrants struggling to pay the $50 a year rent to the wealth Heard family who then owned the house. And finally to the Scott’s as they supported the World War II effort at home while their two sons fought overseas.
Throughout the play the spectators become entranced both by the individual stories of the people who lived in the house and by the historical periods they represent. Having been born and raised in Ipswich, and just recently spent my 4th of July holiday there, the play was especially poignant as the family names and stories remain part of the ongoing life-thread of the town. At times the memories it invoked became personally emotional. After the play ended I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation with J.T. Turner. As I thanked him for his wonderful writing, the actress who played “Grandma” Scott gaze at me with that look that actors get when they see how their craft affected others. I can safely say that I was affected by the performance. Thank you all.
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His new book on Abraham Lincoln is due out in 2017.