Historical drama set under open sky

May 06, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Performing in an open-air arena can be a challenge under any circumstance, but the young actresses appearing in the historical drama "Dear Old Patapsco" had their share of particular inconveniences.

At the play's premiere at the restored ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City on April 24, the glaring sun forced the girls to squint, and windy conditions kept their old-fashioned hoop skirts flying around them throughout the performance.

"Dear Old Patapsco," written and directed by Debi Wynn, a theatrical director for the Baltimore Museum of Industry, is based on journals, records and diaries of the young women who attended the school circa 1850.

The Patapsco Female Institute opened in 1837. The school became nationally recognized under headmistress Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, whose book "Lectures on Botany" was published in 1829.

The school offered classes in rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, natural sciences, ancient and modern languages, botany, chemistry, art and music.

The institute closed in 1891 and lay in ruins until it was restored this decade by the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, which owns the site.

The play was funded by grants from the Howard County Arts Council and the Maryland State Arts Council.

Fourteen actresses ranging in age from 12 to 17 portray the girls who attended the school.

"Part of the charm of the play is seeing it being performed where these young girls actually went to school and lived," said Deborah Ing, project coordinator and director of the historic park.

Carolyn Mech, a 15-year-old freshman at River Hill High School who plays Southern belle Lavinia, said performing has been "a great experience. We're all pretty different and we were pretty antsy with each other. But we've had to pull together, and it's fun to do it."

Carolyn said it's been interesting to "learn how the girls had to act back then. They had to sit up really straight, which was so hard for a lot of us because we all slouch so much," she said with a laugh.

Memorizing dialogue from the play, which runs about an hour and a half, has been challenging, said Kacey Sales, 12, a seventh-grader at Lansdowne Middle School.

"I have about 50 million, trillion lines, and that can be pretty hard to remember sometimes," said Kacey, who plays Sarah Conway. "But I really like how the costumes are all puffed out," referring to the four layers of clothing, including crinoline, that make up the period dresses.

"Dear Old Patapsco" will be presented at 11 a.m. tomorrow and 6 p.m. Saturday. Performances will continue at 6 p.m. May 14, 22, June 5, 12 and 19; and at 11 a.m. May 14. Tickets are $10; $8 for seniors and students. Group rates are available. Information: 410-465-8500.

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