“To the end, I see the path I have been ordained to walk, and upon the grave which closes in on that path, I can read no coward’s epitaph,” wrote Thomas Francis Meagher.
While most Montana students have hopped off a school bus in front of the Montana Capitol in Helena and gazed up at the statue of Meagher, erected in 1905. But how many know or remember much about the charismatic Irish renegade and Civil War hero who served twice as acting territorial governor?
“We’re out to change that and present it in a way that’s entertaining and enjoyable,” says Port Polson Players producer and playwright Neal Lewing.
He and his wife and co-producer, Karen Lewing, are staging a full-scale musical dedicated to the brief but swashbuckling life of Meagher, titled “No Coward’s Epitaph.” The original show premieres Thursday at the Theatre on the Lake in Polson, and continues through Nov. 21.
Lewing has been fascinated with Meagher for more than a decade. In 2009 his quartet, the Montana ShamRockers, was invited by the Ancient Order of Hibernians to perform for the dedication of a Meagher statue near the spot in Fort Benton where he mysteriously disappeared.
Lewing and his bandmate, John Glueckert, volunteered to write a few original songs about Meagher for the dedication “and for some reason it just resonated with me,” he says. “I couldn’t get enough – I still can’t get enough.”
He went on to write and tour his one-man show, “Meagher of the Sword,” and the ShamRockers were twice invited to perform in Meagher’s birthplace, Waterford, Ireland.
Now, just two years shy of Meagher’s 200th birthday celebration, Lewing is premiering an epic ode to an extraordinary man – a tribute he hopes to take to Ireland in 2023.
Lewing remains amazed at what Meagher accomplished in just two decades, from fomenting Irish rebellion at age 23 to his untimely death at 43, and says distilling such a large life into just two hours is daunting.
“It’s pretty ambitious that’s for sure,” he says. But since rehearsals began six weeks ago, “everybody is diving in with both feet. I can’t praise the cast enough.”
So few people know the story
Much of the play, which was crafted during the yearlong pandemic shutdown, incorporates the dashing orator’s own words. And because his life was so colorful, it has the elements intrinsic to any good story: romance (he was married twice), action and intrigue.
The Irish patriot, sentenced to death in England, was then sent to a penal colony in Tasmania, Australia. He escaped and made his way to New York City, where he eventually served as general of the famed Irish Brigade – the Fighting 69th – and confidante of President Lincoln during the Civil War.
In 1865, President Andrew Johnson sent him to Montana Territory to lay the groundwork for statehood. His life ended abruptly two years later in Fort Benton when he fell – or was pushed – from a moored steamboat into the swift current of the Missouri River. His demise still baffles historians – especially since his body was never found – but he left a large enough imprint on Montana history that his statue stands in front of the Capitol.
“What surprises me every day is that so few people know the story,” says Lewing. “And the sad part is that most of the things people do know were created after his death by many of his venomous detractors.”
Distilling a large life into just two hours
To capture the breadth of Meagher’s brief life, the Lewings deploy a cast of 15 (most playing multiple roles), a five-member orchestra, and scene changes that take the audience to 24 different locations.
The latter feat is the magic-making of Emily Palmieri, “a technical genius” according to Lewing. A grant from the Montana Art Council helped finance her efforts to create sepia-toned projections that appear on a screen behind the actors, each corresponding to a time and place in the storyline.
“Her work is so good that her tech plot almost ends up being like character in the show,” says Lewing. He also hopes that mixing modern technology with traditional staging techniques will help hold the attention of younger audience members.
Even with an expansive cast, everyone plays three or four different roles (including Palmieri and members of the orchestra). Karen has been mining their extensive warehouse for costumes, with many members requiring several outfits.
“You have to look different if you’re a Tasmanian peasant or a New York aristocrat or a Civil War soldier – and we all play all of them,” Lewing says.
The orchestra is led by conductor Bob Mazurek, former Polson High music director, who teams up with retired Ronan High music teacher Cathy Gillhouse on bass and harp; Paul Rowold on clarinet, Marjorie Christensen on flute, and pianist Angela Claver (rehearsal pianist is Trish Tavenner).
Lewing wrote all of the musical’s 20 songs, except for two traditional Irish tunes, and notes this is the first musical he’s ever scored for more than a piano or small combo. Mazurek “has been invaluable in refining the music,” he says. “They’ve all pitched in and helped me with that.”
Gillhouse has hosted rehearsals at her house in Ronan, and Lewing says cast members often call each other and go over scenes between play practices. “I’ve been amazed with this cast,” he adds. “They just want this to be so good, so right on – it’s unusual and very encouraging.”
The Lewings tapped Mike Gillpatrick, who lives near St. Ignatius, for the lead role. He’s a veteran of several Port Polson Players productions, including “Dirty Work at the Crossroads,” “12 Angry Men” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“He’s built for live theatre,” says Lewing. “He’s quick, takes direction and delves into the character. And he’s the only one we know of who looks a lot like Thomas Meagher.”
Fans of the Players will see other veterans on stage, including Jim and Jeanie Siragusa, Les Lundeen, John Glueckert and, of course, the Lewings. Newcomers tread the boards too, including Ann Peacock who portrays Meagher’s second wife, Libby.
Doing “what you were made to do”
With six decades under his belt as a performer, Lewing considers the musical “the biggest and most promising thing I’ve done for quite awhile.”
He also credits his wife and co-creator. “Karen has been right there every step of the way. She’s pulled me through the doubting times and has been a tireless warrior on this project,” he says. “She believes in it, she’s passionate about it, and of course she never does anything half way. If she decides to take on a project it’s done ’til it’s done.”
Even after the last show on Nov. 21, the Lewings hope their creation lives on, possibly as a touring production, and hopefully on stage in 2023 where Meagher’s life began. Meanwhile, there are plenty more historical characters “who have these tremendous stories that no one knows about. I’m always on the look out for that.”
“You just try to affect your own part of the world and do what you were made to do,” he says. It’s a sentiment that would have made the Irish patriot proud.
“No Coward’s Epitaph” premieres at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 11-21. For reservations, call 883-9212 or visit www.portpolsonplayers.com.
– Kristi Niemeyer