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Unsung Heroine

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Jul. 23, 2008
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  Desert land comprises a majority of Iraq’s 168,000 square miles, so it would seem to be a strange setting for an outdoor play staged in the lush wooded area of Spring Green, Wis. But it wasn’t the location that led playwright and American Players Theatre (APT) co-founder James DeVita to write Desert Queen, a drama about influential British archaeologist Gertrude Bell. The idea came a few years ago, when DeVita challenged himself to write a piece for Sarah Day, a longtime member of the APT Core Acting Company.

  It’s a sad truth that the number of truly great roles for women dwindles as they advance in age, so DeVita set out to create a proper role for the extremely talented Day. Thus came the story of Gertrude Bell, a somewhat unsung female of the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  Some historians have noted Bell’s influence—a few have even written books about her—but her contributions to the history of the Middle East aren’t as widely recognized as those of her contemporaries, such as Lt. Col. Thomas Edward Lawrence—aka Lawrence of Arabia. So DeVita had his work cut out for him in building a script around a historical figure who has often been overlooked by writers of stage and screen.

  The greater challenge, perhaps, is handed to Day, who must forge a believable performance out of a script that details the life of someone whose exploits seem so fantastic. Bell, who graduated with honors from OxfordUniversityat the age of 19 at a time when few women were attending college,briefly went on to do some mountaineering in Switzerland. Later she traveled to the Middle East, and, through her extensive writings, became a major political figure in Iraq. Day, who has given life to so many roles around the margins of APT, should positively shine in this one-woman show.

The final of two performances of Desert Queen makes it to APT’s stage Sunday, July 27, at 6 p.m.


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