Play celebrates a town

Acting: Jake Benedict (left), Christopher Palsgrove as the ghost of Isaac Atlee, and Emily Benedict practice their lines in the dress rehearsal of "A New Windsor Ballad."

September 29, 2000|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

It's back by popular demand and could be the toughest ticket in town.

Crowds overflowed the sole previous performance of "A New Windsor Ballad," a musical play about the small town near Carroll County's western border.

Doris Pierce, a member of the New Windsor Heritage Committee, wrote the play for the 1997 bicentennial of its founding. The story begins in 1788 and ends with a cast-and-audience rendition of "On New Windsor" - the song of a school that closed in 1957.

"The alumni still sing it at their meetings," Pierce said.

The cast seemed to know the old school song and sang it vigorously at the end of dress rehearsal Tuesday night at St. Paul's United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, cater-catty-cornered from the tavern built by New Windsor founder Isaac Atlee.

Teens ate pizza, then traded their flannel shirts, jeans and baggy shorts for flowing poets' shirts, vests, knee breeches and wigs, or long dresses and muslin caps and bonnets.

The ghost of Atlee narrates much of the tale, played by Christopher Palsgrove, a 17-year-old Francis Scott Key High School student, in wig and tri-cornered hat. His appearance is triggered by the rummaging of Jake and Emily Benedict, 12 and 10, through an old attic trunk.

Period music accompanies the action, which is prompted by the children's finds, including a wanted poster, a pistol, Civil War memorabilia, a firefighter's hat - and a map.

"That map was my vision for a new town," Atlee's ghost tells them, recalling that "there was nothing here but woods and tanglewood" in 1788, when he was traveling the old Monocacy Road from Winchester, Va., to Philadelphia. He built a tavern on the road and, nine years later, plats were laid out for New Windsor, named for Windsor, England, in a 1757 land grant by Lord Calvert to Charles Carroll.

Wars, a duel, exploding inventions, a discordant brass band and a bank robbery enliven the story of the town's history, which also duly notes its first post office, school, doctor's office and fire company, the coming of the railroad, and the founding of several churches.

The play recalls New Windsor's fling as a resort nicknamed Sulphur Springs and the building of "Quality Hill," Victorian-era homes of wealthy farmers and Baltimore expatriates that still stand on Church Street.

Entertaining presentation

"I think it's fantastic that the Heritage Committee in New Windsor has delved into its history and created this entertaining and educational way to present it to the community," said Jay Graybeal, executive director of the Historical Society of Carroll County, who added a paper place mat advertising the show to the society's collection.

"I think what's really interesting is, of course, every place name, every community, has its own unique history," he said, noting other towns' activities such as Union Bridge's restoring an 18th-century family cemetery, and historical displays in Sykesville and Manchester. "Each picks its own way to celebrate."

"A New Windsor Ballad" is directed by Suzanne Summit, mathematics teacher and drama club adviser at Francis Scott Key High School, who ran the top-to-bottom dress rehearsal Tuesday night. "Slow and loud. ... Don't lurk in the back," she urged the stage full of players.

Many in the cast of dozens knew not only their lines, but also how to take their marks, project to the rear, and wait for audience reaction to a line - from previous experience as past or present students.

Summit encouraged those inclined to ad lib with words or actions. Chief among these was Russell Warehime, 21, a woodworker in Finksburg and grandson of the late town clerk. One scene puts him, wearing red long johns, in a bath basin, another tooting away as the last member of an 1852 brass band. Joseph Schreyer, 53, a product manager in Owings Mills, also played for laughs as a fedora-and trench-coated detective, tracking the 1869 theft of $130,000 in cash and securities from New Windsor Bank.

New Windsor was visited during the Civil War by about 5,400 Union soldiers en route to Gettysburg in 1863, under Brigadier Gen. David McD. Gregg.

The event is related in the fictional diary of 13-year-old Maggie Mehring (Rachel Schuster) of Miss Kleefish's School for Girls on High Street, who wrote of "a moon bright like day (with soldiers) riding six and eight abreast with their swords clattering, while cheer after cheer rent the air. They were so happy to be in Maryland. Glad to be received with cheers and smiles."

The next summer, villagers locked their homes and shops as 500 Confederate cavalrymen under Bradley T. Johnson swooped in and set up temporary headquarters at the Baile house on Main Street.

A highlight of the production was Dawn Richards' soaring solo of the period song "Gentle Annie." The stage was full of quiet actors, including 15-year-old John Harris looking soulful in his Confederate garb as if he had stepped from a photograph of one of those too-young soldiers.

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