Happy Birthday, Mrs. Powel!

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On February 21, 1793, just one day before his own birthday, President George Washington sent a birthday greeting to his dear friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Willing Powel. Enclosed in the envelope was a poem he'd commissioned from local Philadelphia poet, and mutual friend, the extraordinary Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson.

In Philadelphia, 222 years later, one can visit the Powel House, and standing in the second floor ballroom it is easy to forget the passage of centuries and imagine Eliza Powel, in the midst of arranging the details for the birthday ball later that evening, reading the contents of this letter, a tribute from two old friends.

She must have smiled at Washington's personal introduction to the poem, as I do today, appreciating his humor and intellect:

"The enclosed thoughts are well conceived. The sentiments are just; and altho’ the envy expressed in some of them is to be regretted, yet it is hoped that Mira, at the age of four score, will stand as much in the way of Cloe as she does at present; and will appear the Same in the eyes of all who may then see her, as she did on her anniversary of fifty."

The poem and note from Washington are only two of the many clues we have about the Washington/Powel friendship, and I'm thrilled to be starting a journey with American Historical Theatre that I hope to continue for a long time to come, of interpreting the complex and enigmatic Elizabeth Powel.

Lines, by a Friend, addressed to Mrs Elizabeth Powel on her Birth Day of Fifty Years February 21. 179<3>

Since Fifty Suns have annual run
From Mira’s Date on Earth
And half a Century is spun
Since Fate proclaimed her Birth

A joyous Evening shall be spent
And old & young agree
To mark the Hour which Time has lent
To hail the Jubilee.

The old are pleased, because her Days
Approach near to their own
Tho’ yet no Traces of Decays
On Mira’s Face are shown

The Young rejoice because they hope
Like her to please & shine
When they have ranged thro’ Pleasure’s Scope
And verge on Life’s Decline

Ungenerous, some derive a Joy
To think that Winter soon
Will all her vernal Charms destroy
And turn to Eve her Noon.

The chattering Flirts from fifteen Years
To Twenty Five collect
And, tho’ they whisper, yet one hears
What they, in vain, expect

Miss Chloe begs with selfish Sneer
‘Since Mira owns her Age
That She’ll less frequently appear
Midst Youth upon the Stage

‘Indeed I think she should retire
Contented with the past
Fifty should other Thoughts inspire
Would She, forever last

‘For We may frizz and powder too
And Garlands gay arrange
For Praise & Conquest vainly sue
Our Shapes like Proteus change

‘But Mira comes & we’re forsook
And left to mope alone
No more can We such Usage brook
Unnoticed where she’s known

‘Her facinating Tongue does more
Than Youth & vernal Bloom
I fear She’ll charm at dread Fourscore
Descending to the Tomb

‘The famous Ninon, we are told
At Ninety boasted Powers
And none, who heard her, thought her old
Tho’ Time all Things devours.’

Miranda sagely thus replied
To Chloe’s selfish Thought
‘My Dear it cannot be denied
That Miracles are wrought.

‘By Eloquence and Wit combined
Yet both of these will fade
The Laurel’s droop with which they’re twined
And blast in Deaths cold Shade

‘If Virtue and an Heart sincere
Should not with these conspire
They but provoke a biting Sneer
Not true Esteem inspire

‘These Ninon wanted; Mira, here,
Transcends her far above
’Gainst her e’en Slander ne’er could dare
Her venom’d Tongue to move

‘Then ye who hope in Autumn’s Eve
Like Mira long to reign
Like Ninon aim not to deceive
Or Virtue’s Garb obtain.

‘Like Mira, Virtue’s Self possess.
‘Let her adorn your Mind
For Virtue in a pleasing Dress
Has Charms for all Mankind.’

Her spotless Mantle shall be shown
When its blest Owner flies
The flaming Chariot make it known
When soaring to the Skies.

The Powel House is located at 244 South 3rd Street and is open to the public.
high drama

My Grandpa

Jonathan George Davis

Jonathan Davis died Sunday evening, March 30, 2014 at the Bonnie Bluejacket Memorial Nursing Home south of Greybull, where he had been a resident since last August. He passed away just six days short of his 99th birthday. He was a member of the First Baptist Church in Greybull. A memorial service for Jonathan will be held during the summer.

Jonathan was born in the family home on Germania (now Emblem) Bench on April 5, 1915. He was the youngest child of John and Osie Anna Davis. Except for living and working briefly in Greybull during the early 1940s, he was a farmer and rancher who lived at Emblem all his life.

Living next to the main road from Greybull to Cody and Yellowstone for almost a century gave Jonathan a unique perspective on all the changes that took place during those years. He loved to tell stories, and just the stories he told about that road would fill many pages. His earliest memory of that two-track road is waking up on winter mornings to the sound of wagon wheels squealing through the snow as farmers hauled wheat or oats to Greybull. He remembered rushing to the window, which was covered with frost on the inside, and blowing a hole so that he could watch each farmer pass by; walking beside his wagon with the reins tied around his waist, and swinging his arms to keep from getting too cold.

Jonathan could read some and had a pretty good grasp of “numbers” before he started attending the one-room East Emblem School in 1921. In 1922 he moved to the new building, a mammoth two-room structure. His mother warned him never to accept rides from strangers as he walked to and from school, but one afternoon he was just starting home from school when a big Lincoln touring car stopped and the driver offered him a ride. The second Jonathan got in the car he said, “My mom told me not to ride with strangers.” The driver looked startled and said, “Oh dear, you don’t know me.” The first grader replied, "Of course I know you. Your license plate is ‘Wyoming 1.’ You’re Jakie Schwoob!” Mr. Schwoob roared with laughter. He was the owner of the Cody Trading Co., and the State Highway Commissioner; before the governor of Wyoming appropriated the number, the highway commissioner always got the “Wyoming 1” plate. For several years, the commissioner would hold the Lincoln’s horn button down each time he passed the Davis farm.

Jonathan attended Basin High School where his sister was teaching school during his freshman year, and graduated from Greybull High School in 1932. He married Melba Turner in Greybull on December 29, 1937. The couple had enjoyed 69 years together before Melba passed away in 2007.

He served on several boards, and especially enjoyed his twenty years as a district supervisor for the Greybull-Shell Valley Soil Conservation District. Always an avid reader, he was very interested in local and regional history; in 1976 he and Melba were part of a group under the auspices of the Wyoming State Historical Society, which published "Re-Discovering the Big Horns." In 1987, Jonathan and Melba compiled and published They Called it Germania-The History of Wyoming’s Emblem Bench-1893 to 1937, a book based on interviews with many of Germania’s early settlers. Jonathan served as president of the Big Horn County Historical Society from 1970 until 1979, and resumed the office again for nearly a decade in the 1990s. He always said he resigned as president, but his resignation was ignored and he had to serve three more years.

Jonathan loved photography and won many ribbons, including “Best of Show,” at both the Big Horn County Fair and the Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site photo contest. He loved playing the harmonica, and until very near the end of his life greatly enjoyed playing tunes for people—“Little Brown Jug” and the hymn “Whispering Hope” were his favorites.

Jonathan was preceded in death by his parents, his brother Claude of Basin, and his sister Lucille Doty of Signal Hill, California. He is survived by his three children: Philip (Gina) of Oceano, California; Thomas of Emblem; Susan (Chuck) of Chester, Pennsylvania, and five grandchildren.

Finally, in Jonathan’s best tradition, there always has to be one more story: Late one cold evening after holding a service at the East Emblem Schoolhouse, Rev. Hopton, a Baptist minister who traveled throughout the Big Horn Basin, pulled into the Davis farmyard in his old Model T; it had a brass radiator, straight fenders and no top. Hoping to keep it as warm as possible, he parked it as close to the house as he could get it--then drained the radiator before spending the night. In the morning, Jonathan’s dad and big brother went out with the preacher to help start the Ford—they jacked up one hind wheel, then one poured hot water into the radiator and on the engine block while the others took turns and cranked and cranked. The Reverend had come inside to warm up when finally the old Ford went “chug.” Dad always remembered the pastor excitedly saying, “She’s a talkin’.” At last the Ford spluttered to life, and Dad’s eyes would sparkle as he told how the minister said, “Hallelujah—now she’s singing!” Such stories are the legacy of Jonathan Davis. His stories and the sounds of his harmonica playing “Whispering Hope” will echo through the minds of his family and friends for a long time.
la baroness

Theatre year in review

It's been a really great year for me, theatrically. Every contact I've made over the past ten years seemed to converge and create amazing opportunities I hadn't even dreamed of. The wonderfully creative team behind Bckseet Productions, Kate Brennan and Gregory DeCandia, which has now moved its base of operations to NYC, contacted me about playing Brutus in an all-female touring production of "Julius Caesar." We toured local Philadelphia schools, including Boys Latin, and had an incredible experience hearing Shakespeare's words as if for the first time.


At Curio in the Spring, I performed in a world premiere of a play written by Curio co-founder, Paul Kuhn, "Madville," about his childhood in Nova Scotia. I played the complex, tormented mother to a brood of imaginative, wild children.


Then, for a complete change of pace, Josh Hitchens, a fellow member of Curio Theatre, contacted me about a production of Ibsen's "A Doll's House," to be performed in a beautifully preserved Victorian mansion in the Germantown district of Philadelphia. I didn't hesitate before saying yes, never having had the opportunity to play Ibsen, one of my theatrical gods, and then... to be presented with the chance to play Nora, arguably the most symbolic of his heroines! What a beautiful experience this was. So beautiful, in fact, that we made a film of the production, (copies of which can still be purchased for $15, plus shipping and handling.)


And then, there was "Macbeth." I still haven't quite recovered from this production, directed by one of my favorite theatre people, Dan Hodge, and starring another, Jared Reed. There are times every component of a production comes together and creates absolute magic. That is what this production was for me; pure magic. I miss not only the setting and the other actors and that wonderful sense of collaboration between director and crew and even playwright, for the play became a living, breathing creature, adapting itself to our talents and needs, but I miss that part of me that came out in Lady Macbeth... sensuous and graceful and articulate and compelling. I'm a damp dishrag in comparison.

I talked to our friend, the phenomenally talented Lee Moyer, about creating a poster from some of Kyle's production photos, so that I could give Jared and Dan a closing gift that had meaning for me. And this is the thing of beauty he created:


macbeth embrace

Back at Curio in the Spring, I revisited a play dear to my heart, Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa," which was a defining moment in my college career at Smith. It was the first time I felt I truly inhabited a role and forgot about audience and final exams in that complete stage world. This time I played the oldest Mundy sister, Kate and had to dance like I knew what I was doing. Scary for me, a non-dancer, but ultimately very rewarding.


Tomorrow, I begin rehearsals for a production of "Sense and Sensibility." This is not a production photo, but a book jacket design my friend, photographer JR Blackwell, is creating. It's as close to Elinor Dashwood as I've ever been!

jane austen
in the light

Plays, past and present

I never seem to have stress dreams about shows I'm in; it's always just after the show has closed that it seems all the ideas of what might or could go wrong crowd themselves into my sleeping mind and terrorize me. In "The Real Inspector Hound," which closed on Saturday, I had an ornate 1940's hairdo, involving hair rats and liberty rolls, that I developed through hours of watching Youtube instructional videos. I was incredibly proud of the results and always began preparations by 4:30 on show nights. Naturally, last night's dream had me waiting until the show actually started to begin my preparations backstage, with disastrous results.

Inspector Hound

I loved every minute of this production; it hasn't quite sunk in that I won't be getting my hair into an elaborate updo tomorrow night. Or, will I...? Hmmm.

Yesterday, Kyle and I were invited to brunch at the home of Joy Cutler, the incredible woman who wrote last year's "Pardon My Invasion." We went out to get on our bikes, since Joy lives in a fairly inaccessible (to us) part of the city, and discovered that Kyle's bike simply was not there. It's been so long since we've taken a ride, that it's impossible to say how long it's been gone. A mystery indeed. So, we cabbed it to brunch and then walked home afterwards -- a nice leisurely walk behind Boat House Row, around the art museum and over the Schuylkill River, past the gorgeous Victorian turned frat houses that are sprinkled around University City. And brunch itself was lovely, with conversations about plays being written and short stories being peddled, and bread and chocolate and vegetable stew and quiche. A comfortable way to start a brand new year.

Alp d'Huez

This is the final weekend for the original play I've been performing in Philadelphia at the Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes Street. Performances are today and tomorrow, the 3rd and 4th of November, at 2pm.

The play takes place in a hotel room in Paris during the final leg of the Tour de France in 2005, when Lance Armstrong is about to score his 6th consecutive victory. With Lance being in the news so often these days, the play is unwittingly quite topical, and the pacing makes it feel like we're racing to score the victory ourselves.

John Rosenberg wrote the play with me in mind for the role of Joanna, and the part covers so many emotions, from giddy happiness to heartbreaking despair.

If you're in Philadelphia and catch one of the final performances, it would be lovely to see you there!

Ada Lovelace Day!

Before I post about my new show that opened on Saturday afternoon here in Philadelphia, I want to point out that tomorrow, October 16, is Ada Lovelace Day, and you should celebrate women in the sciences; maybe go to a local science fair or get together with a sister or niece and set off rockets, or go someplace like the Franklin Institute and marvel at how far we've all come.

I was featured on the Ada Lovelace Day site last week.  I think it came out beautifully - click on the link to see a short video of me reading lines from "Childe Byron" and then some rehearsal footage Kyle Cassidy took as I talk about the challenges and rewards of bringing Ada to the stage.

<a href=>Finding Ada on stage</a>.

I'll miss this show very much, but it helps to go immediately on to a new project.  After a marathon performance schedule on Saturday, Kyle and I hosted a cast party that went on into the wee hours... and were joined by Amanda and Eric, who were in town for a house concert.  She serenaded us on the ukulele with "Delilah", which, I have to say, was one of the most moving and spectacular ways to end the evening.

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. Hard.

Geek of the Week

Last week, I was interviewed by Eric Smith of Geekadelphia as Geek of the Week. In the interview, I discuss Ada Lovelace and the challenges of bringing her to life on stage, as well as the Philly arts and theatre scene.

Opening weekend was a thrill. Our friends, Jeanine Cummins and Carolyn Turgeon, who both have new books scheduled to come out within the next few months, came down from New York for opening night, which was also my birthday, and we were able to spend time with them the next morning over an Ethiopian brunch.

And now, I start rehearsing for the next show, while Ada simmers slowly in a corner of my mind until Friday....

Childe Byron

I've been really busy... which is why I never seem to post anything aside from show announcements these days. I've worked really hard on this next show, which opens tomorrow night at Allens Lane Theatre. The subject has captured my imagination, as she can not fail to capture yours, if you know anything about her life. Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was the legitimate daughter of rockstar poet, Lord Byron, and mathematician, Annabella Milbanke... and a gifted mathematician and scientist in her own right, widely credited with being the first computer programmer for her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine.

She was a complex and gifted woman who died of cancer at the age of 36... the same age Byron was when he died, and the age his father was before him. The play takes place on the last day of her life as she wildly tries to make sense of her life and the life of the father she never knew.

Chris Braak plays Lord Byron, and Shamus Hunter McCarty plays him as a young boy. More pictures of other cast mates to come soon.

childe byron

ada lovelace

poet byron
my antonia

Returning to Laramie

I spent my childhood in Laramie, Wyoming... but left with my family ten years before Matthew Shepard's brutal murder in 1998. It's a subject that haunts me, as it has haunted countless others in the intervening 14 years, in part because of my own conflicted, adolescent feelings for Laramie itself.

I've been back to Laramie a few times, both in imagination and reality... the last time being in 2003, when I was in rehearsals for "The Laramie Project" outside of Philadelphia. I took a roadtrip from Denver, up through Wyoming to my grandparents' farm, stopping in Laramie on the way back to the airport to visit my dad's brother and sister. It was largely as I remembered it growing up, particularly the main area by the railroad tracks and the university itself, with its lovely gardens and walkways, where I had once played as a child.

Perhaps it was being in a production of the play at the time that made me feel so disconnected from the events there... as if it were nothing more than a theatrical event from which I could disengage. I didn't recognize myself or anyone I knew in the characters portrayed on stage; and it was a technically complicated production that served to create a barrier between the words and feeling... and so it seemed the play could be about any town but Laramie.

So here I am, nearly ten years later, about to open a production of "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later," and it's a shock to realize that I see myself in all the characters. The play itself is a work of great simplicity and maturity, as much as the original play was a work of youthful energy and idealism. Perhaps it's that maturity I respond to; the writers and original performers had the confidence and sensitivity to step away from the subject enough to let it speak for itself, without forcing it to be anything but a contemplation on the nature of fear, denial, and healing.

And for the first time in years, I listen to the final words of the play, as I stand on stage, and I can see Laramie stretching out below me, the Gem City of the Plains, in all its wonderful and terrible complexity.

If you're in the Philadelphia area, I hope you can stop by and catch The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. It's conveniently located in center city at Plays and Players Theatre at 17th and Delancey Streets, and is produced by Quince Productions.

For the schedule and tickets, Click HERE. It runs in repertory with other plays during GayFest in August. I think it's an important play to see, and an important story to remember. Regardless of where you live, it's part of our history.

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Photo by Kyle Cassidy, with Ryan Walter and John Schultz
falling through the rabbit hole

Stomp the Runway

Last Friday, our friend, Autumn, head designer at Heartless Revival, was the headlining designer at Stomp the Runway, a benefit to aid victims of domestic abuse. I would link to the website, but it's not browser friendly and has really loud music, sadly. The venue was "Trust," a gorgeous old bank in Old City that has been used as an art gallery and even home to The Real World: Philadelphia, and the event was incredibly lush, with every kind of fashion represented on and off the runway, dozens of photographers stationed in the entryway, models wandering through the crowds, towering above us like exotic long-limbed birds. And we were both so proud to know such an amazing designer.

Here we are, as caught by photographer, Jeff Coen, in front of a canvas representing Paris; I'm wearing my Heartless Revival cocktail dress and Kyle is wearing his kambriel cuffs.

Stomp the Runway

Such a wonderful, magical evening.