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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 21, 2018

‘Inheritors’ opening Friday at Starlighters: 1920s play parallels life in Iowa today

By Diana Nollen, The Gazette | Sep 22, 2017

Susan Glaspell isn’t a household name in her home state, despite writing more than 50 short stories, nine novels, a biography and 14 plays, including the 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Alison’s House.”

Born in Davenport in 1876, she bucked the trend to marry right out of school, and instead, went to Drake University in Des Moines, graduated in 1899, then worked as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News until 1901, when she returned home to focus on her own writing. She married George Cram Cook in 1913 and moved to Greenwich Village where they lived among like-minded, freethinking liberals. Her husband encouraged her to write plays, and in 1916, they established the Provincetown Players, which quickly moved from Cape Cod to the city. They produced innovative plays, many written by women, as well as her own. According to the International Susan Glaspell Society, her plays “received better reviews than those of Eugene O’Neill.”

Jennifer Beall stumbled across the all-but-forgotten Glaspell while doing research for a college class. The more she read, the more intrigued she became.

Beall, 23, an Anamosa native now living in Cedar Rapids, got her theatrical start onstage at Starlighters II Theatre in her hometown, and had been itching to direct a play there. Glaspell’s “Inheritors” seemed like a good fit, in light of the country’s recent immigration issues. It opens there Friday (9/22) and continues through Oct. 1, with a cast ages 17 to 60-plus from across Eastern Iowa.

Two members of the International Susan Glaspell Society will lead a talkback following Sunday’s performance (9/24).

Written in 1921, the story revolves around nationalism, immigration and the erosion of basic rights like freedom of speech. Among three generations of Americans is Silas Morton, a farmer who wanted to plant a college in a cornfield as a way to give back some of the land the government seized during the Blackhawk war of 1832, and in honor of his friend Felix Fejevary, a Hungarian revolutionary and immigrant.

Fast-forward to 1920, where Fejevary’s son is a trustee at the college. Seeking state funds for the school, he’s squaring off against Morton’s outspoken granddaughter, Madeline, 21. She’s speaking out for the students from India who are protesting British Imperial rule, as well as others Fejevary is trying to silence so as not to counter the nationalism mind-set following World War I. She risks going to jail for her stance on social justice.

Characters in the play tell her she shouldn’t stand up for the Hindus, that it’s foolish to champion their rights since “they aren’t actually American,” Beall noted. “That’s something we’ve been talking about recently. We see a lot of coverage about those kinds of situations in the news today.

“Susan Glaspell wrote (the play) as a response to the first wave of the ‘Red Scare’ that was happening after World War I,” she said.

“It also focuses on the right to free speech, particularly Madeline’s right to say things that are critical about the American government, because at the time, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act were in place. They stifled what people could say about the government, because coming out of World War I, there was the focus on patriotism. And during the war, they didn’t want journalists writing about things that would detract from the war effort by criticizing the government. Those laws were still in pace after the war, which is why Madeline is arrested.”

Director Beall hopes audience members see the parallels between past and present.

“I would like them to see how relevant the events that happened in the 1920s are to what we’re currently going through today,” and said, “and maybe take some inspiration from how Madeline handled her situation and Madeline’s convictions, and try to apply that to their own lives and address the similar situations that we have going on now.”

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