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Same-Sex Romance in a New Nation, New Adaptation of Patience and Sarah
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-10-03

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The legacy of self-taught artist Mary Ann Willson is founded on a portfolio of watercolors executed in tints fashioned from brick dust, berry juices and vegetable dyes—materials plentiful in the rural regions of Greene County, New York, during the early 19th century—as well as two letters from a patron asking after her and a "Miss Brundage," with whom she shared a log cabin on a farm, and a lifetime companionship. Romantic legends are built on just such archeological enigmas. In 1969, author Alma Routsong, writing under the pseudonym Isabel Miller, published a novel recounting the story of two very dissimilar women, now named Patience White and Sarah Dowling, whose passion for one another led them to seek their fortunes together on the frontier circa 1820, in defiance of then-prevalent social and familial norms. The obstacles they overcome in their pursuit of happiness beckoned to lyricist Wende Persons and composer Paula M. Kimper in 1998. The results were the opera now celebrating its 20th anniversary production under the auspices of Third Eye Theatre Ensemble

What about this obscure footnote in the cultural history of our country sparked the imaginations of not one, but three, artists living over two hundred years after the events it documents? Third Eye Artistic Director Rena Ahmed, Director Jennifer Cox and Conductor Alexandra Enyart weigh in on the possibilities.

Windy City Times: What made Third Eye decide that now was the right time to acquaint us with this story?

Jennifer Cox: People sometimes seem to think that same-sex love is a recent invention—like we were new-sprung from Oscar Wilde's thigh. To be reminded that human love, in ALL its manifestations, has been around ever since there were humans gives us back our historical roots.

WCT: Miller recounted the saga of the fictionalized Willson and Brundage as a novel, but could as easily have adapted it as a play or a film. How does opera's "sung-through" vocabulary enhance the story?

Alexandra Enyart: Music not only gives us insight into characters' hearts and minds, but also suggests an environment. During Sarah's travels, for example, the music paints us a picture of the open road. It also sets up themes, so that the melody we associate with Patience and Sarah's first kiss later returns as a sweet reminder—or as a bitter memory.

WCT: Cohabiting spinsters were not uncommon before the term "lesbian" ( which never appears in the libretto ) mandated an erotic dimension to same-sex romantic relationships. How sexual will your heroines be?

AE: We only get brief glimpses of their sex lives onstage, but the distinction between closeness through proximity—as when Sarah shares a bed with her sister at home—and intimacy springing from the desire for a deep and meaningful romantic connection, is made very clear by the music in our show.

WCT: When Patience and Sarah first opened at Lincoln Center, its performance time was almost three hours. Third Eye's production at Theater Wit has a much smaller budget and stage. What changes did this necessitate?

Rena Ahmed: We are premiering a newly revised two-hour version of the opera, written by Paula [Kimper] specifically for small companies like ours. We've been working at Prop Thtr for the last three years, so Theater Wit is actually a pretty BIG theater for us!

JC: Even with only a seven-piece orchestra, it was difficult locating it where it wouldn't take up too much playing space, but would still allow Alex to communicate with the singers AND musicians. The small studio works to an advantage, though, in that it echoes the emotional restrictions that Patience and Sarah suffer while awaiting the freedom they long for.

WCT: What should your audience expect from their experience?

JC: At the Lyric, audiences just observe [the music], but storefront opera is a much more visceral experience. You can't help but be immersed in it.

RA: There are Patiences and Sarahs all over the world—people who have to fight every day just to be with the person they love. The time has never been more right to tell women's stories in all their complexity and richness.

* * *

Patience and Sarah opens Oct. 5 at Theater Wit and runs through Oct. 21. Tickets/info: Theaterwit.org 773-975-8150


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