Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses

by John Stoltenberg

Stories of war wounded told from the point of view of military medics—those who try to save lives and bag the bodies of the ones they can’t—give glimpses into the bravery and heroism of the fighting forces who serve and defend. Taking the point of view of U.S. Army nurses sent to the front in France during World War I, storyteller Ellouise Schoettler does not shy away from the carnage of that “bloody, bloody battle.” But the bravery and heroism she shows us vividly is that of the nurses themselves. The story of how they served and defended becomes an engrossing portrait of women before Suffrage who were not even afforded the dignity of rank.

Photo taken on the dock in New York City, June 14, 1917, before the 64 Maryland nurses boarded the USS Finland to cross the Atlantic. “In our blue capes – we were a picture!”

What Schoettler tells us is all true, extracted and structured into a script from the letters of 64 Maryland nurses who were trained and worked at Johns Hopkins. They were highly skilled professionals, ages 25 to 45 “with no attachments,” who, when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, answered the call.

In Schoettler’s concise chronological narrative, we learn of their long voyage at sea, the harsh conditions they faced at the base hospital where they were assigned, the bonds of sisterhood they formed, their courage in the face of calamity… Their readiness and dedication make for an inspiring story of selfless service.

As we enter the black box, “Over Here, Over There” is looping, and black-and-white documentary stills of World War I nurses in uniform scroll across an upstage screen. (The photographs, I learned, are from the archives of the Women In Military Service for America Memorial.)

Schoettler enters wearing a contemporary ensemble of red shoes and a multicolored jacket over black top and slacks. Sitting on a stool, she sets her story in 1970 and delivers it as an 80-year-old woman looking back 50 years. The unnamed character is a composite, based on incidents, language, and images in the letters that were Schoettler’s source. But the text is so of a piece, and has such a persuasive voice, that one is never aware there are actually 64 voices speaking.

Schoettler performed this piece at last year’s Fringe and has toured with it extensively. On opening night, though, her delivery was at times halting, as if unsure of what’s next. This meant that an actor’s transitions typically present and perceptible between moments were often absent, seeming to leave emotional blanks unfilled-in. But throughout Schoettler maintained an amiable, less-is-more composure that made the story carry the emotion, and that it did, quickly establishing its own arresting pace and carrying us along with its own compelling momentum.

 

Recently the U.S. has been declaring wars with far less noble pretexts than the principled military and humanitarian objectives it had in, say, the two World Wars. Tragically this has resulted in service members’ returning home to nothing like the heroes’ welcomes that greeted veterans of previous wars. Thus a striking takeaway from Schoettler’s storytelling is a flashback to when it was far clearer what and whose freedom was being fought for.

Anyone whose grandparents or other family members served in World War I will find this solo performance especially personally engaging (as became evident during a talkback with the audience at the show I attended). And anyone with an interest in women’s history will find the story Schoettler tells a fascinating eye-opener.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses plays through July 22, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. An ASL interpreter was onstage throughout both the performance and the talkback. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

LINKS: 

Capital Fringe Preview: ‘Ready to Serve’: A Story for the WWI Centennial by Ellouise Schoettler, Storyteller

2016 Capital Fringe Preview #19: ‘Ready to Serve: Unknown Stories of WWI Nurses’ by Robin Fox

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

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