Soldiers’ Stories Told on Stage

By Beacon Staff

Like many in the Flathead Valley, local playwright JeAnna Wisher has experienced the ripple effects that come with having family and friends serve in military service – the pride, the fear, the waiting, and the hope for successful reintegration once the tour is over.

Though she’s not in the military, Wisher wanted to contribute to the conversation about America’s relationship with war, and the potential avenues for peaceful conflict resolution.

And with her extensive background in theater, the answer was to write a play, Wisher said.

The resulting musical, “The Pilgrimage,” premiered last week, and will show again at the Glacier High School Performance Center on May 3, 4 and 5. Each show is at 7 p.m.

The musical follows a group of troops who head off to war, following the challenges they face abroad and the difficulties of returning home to a changed social landscape and potential changes in themselves.

It’s a story of courage and integrity, Wisher said, as well as pain and humanity. And since it’s such a heavy subject, Wisher said she wrote it with some light-heartedness as well.

“I tried to write it with a sense of humor,” Wisher said.

Along with the script, Wisher also wrote nine original songs for “The Pilgrimage,” ranging from rock and roll to military marches to rap to ballads. There should be something for everyone in there, she said.

Once the production costs are paid off, the remaining proceeds from the show will go to the Northwest Montana Veterans Food Pantry, Wisher said. Tickets are $10 at the door.

The Pilgrimage has 15 in the cast, and the soldiers will be male and female to reflect the reality of the modern military. Wisher is confident in her crew – several of who have performed in Flathead Valley Community College productions – and said they have overcome challenges unique to an original show.

“You’ve written script and until you get a cast and get it on stage, you just don’t know what it is,” Wisher said. “I’ve given the cast a lot of free range.”

This includes plenty of workshop sessions on the script, where Wisher and her performers go through the scenes and discuss character personalities. If an actor doesn’t believe his or her character would actually say a line or would perhaps say it differently, Wisher is open to suggestions.

That is unlike what most performers are used to, she said, because they’ve likely seen a performance of a play or musical they’re acting in. But with an original script, it puts the pressure on the performers to make the characters come alive for the first time.

“They’ve had to just go from scratch and create it, which was a challenge for them,” Wisher said.

This play was also borne out of a challenging period in Wisher’s life. A bout with cancer in 2011 forced her to retire early to focus on her health, and she realized she had the time to pursue her creative ideas.

“(Fighting cancer) has given me a perspective, too, on how important life is and making the most of every minute,” Wisher said.

Wisher felt her background in theater qualified her for a playwriting endeavor. Before she moved to the Flathead in 1996, she was active in the local Coos Bay theater scene, and has also taught theater classes and written and directed a children’s play.

Since moving here, Wisher said she took a little time off from the theater, but nonetheless has been part of several productions at FVCC and assistant directed with the Whitefish Theater Company. She also performed with the Stumptown Players.

The upcoming shows of “The Pilgrimage” remain her most immediate focus, Wisher said. She hopes the show sparks conversation about scrutinizing U.S. involvement in conflict, while also showing the pride and respect the soldiers who fight for the country deserve.

“It just nicely turned into a heartwarming story,” Wisher said.

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