Monday, April 21, 2008

Playhouse Spooks Up City

Just in time for Halloween, staff and friends from the George Street Playhouse celebrated the ghosts and spirits of three of the city's most prominent historical personalities Saturday evening in a tour of the city connected with "Public Ghosts — Private Stories," a play about city history that will premiere at the Playhouse next spring.

In the chilly October air, Associate Producer George Ryan led 12 enthusiastic history and theater buffs through the city's downtown streets toward the first stop on the tour — the boyhood home of famous hometown poet Joyce Kilmer. A Dial-A-Ride bus, escorted by the Grim Reaper himself, drove 13 other tour-takers to each tour site, where they met up with Ryan's walking tour.

Kilmer expert Harvey Brudner of the Joyce Kilmer Centennial Commission met Ryan's group outside Kilmer's birthplace, a two-and-a-half-story frame house at 17 Codwise Ave. — now known as Joyce Kilmer Avenue — dating back to 1886. Brudner gave a quick, information-packed speech about Kilmer's life and career, two-thirds of which the poet spent in the city before he was killed in action during World War I at the age of 31 in the Battle of Chateau Thierry in France on July 30, 1918.

"Kilmer discovered the famous oak tree located about one mile away from where we stand near the Labor Education Center," Brudner said. "It was not until he wrote the poem 'Trees' that he became a famous poet around the world." The poem's iconic first couplet resounds: "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree."

Guided by a woman with lit lanterns, the group went upstairs to Kilmer's bedroom, a small room decorated with original pictures and precious antiques, such as Kilmer's old writing desk and baby cup. "On cold, windy nights, the alarm mysteriously goes off in this room," the woman said softly. "It is said to be Kilmer's mother."

After the tour of the house, Ryan gathered guests outside. "Let's see." Ryan said jokingly. "We went in with 25 and only 12 stand outside with me now. How many more will come out alive?" While the house was being refurbished, Ryan explained, a couple of workmen were hired to hang a picture of Kilmer's wife in his bedroom, but the nail would not go through the wall. Finally, after many nailing attempts, the workmen gave up and found a different picture to hang in the same exact place. "The nail went right in!" Ryan exclaimed. "And when they finally got the picture of his wife Aline to hang in the other room, it kept falling off the wall again and again!"

City Hall on Bayard Street, the second stop on the tour, hosted a dramatic scene about handmaiden Bridget Deergan, played by Andrea Weldon. A poor, uneducated servant stricken with epilepsy, Deergan was convicted for arson and the murder of her employer Mrs. Coriel in the mid-1800s. Weldon successfully depicted the slaying through the mind of Deergan, who thought she was possessed by the devil.

At the end of the scene, the narrator warned the audience, "Whenever you walk through New Brunswick, you could be walking over Bridget Deegan's bones. She was buried in an unmarked grave after over 500 tickets were sold to city residents to watch her hang to her death on the tree right outside the window."

After about an hour into the tour, the group reached its final destination at Christ Church on 5 Paterson St. Under a tree in the church's burial ground — the final resting place of many New Jersey residents over the centuries — George Street Playhouse actress Gloria Garayua and actor David Gosnall presented a scene inspired by the life of John Bartley, a former slave dedicated to the education of both free people and slaves. At his death, Bartley left his estates and $6,000 — all he possessed — to the Christ Church, situated adjacent to his home and business.

Seduced by the dulcet sounds of organ music, the tour was ultimately led into the church, where Director of Music Mark Trautman ceased his playing to share aspects of the town's background and stories of legends and spirits. Rumor has it that when the sacristy is very quiet, people can hear the happy voices of slaves once hidden in the area on their way to freedom during the Civil War. "If you're very, very quiet," Trautman said, "maybe — just maybe — they will come."

Source: Lauren Halbrecht; Daily Targum; October 30, 2001

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