Lyon brings Civil War issues to life with a woman’s view

Mary Boykin Chestnut, and her feelings and opinions, will be brought to life for local audiences by Biz Lyon when “A World Kicked to Pieces: Mary Boykin Chestnut on Love & War” opens at the Clayton Center for the Arts on Friday, Sept. 16.

Mary Boykin Chestnut, and her feelings and opinions, will be brought to life for local audiences by Biz Lyon when “A World Kicked to Pieces: Mary Boykin Chestnut on Love & War” opens at the Clayton Center for the Arts on Friday, Sept. 16.

Most adults -- and possibly a few schoolchildren -- can rattle off the names of significant figures from the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman and Stonewall Jackson spring quickly to the tongue.

Historic women are scarcer. Clara Barton may be the era’s only female with name recognition today.

That should change this weekend for playgoers attending a performance at the Haslam Family Flex Theatre at the Clayton Center for the Performing Arts on the Maryville College campus. “A World Kicked to Pieces: Mary Boykin Chesnut on Love & War” will introduce many to a Civil War figure acclaimed by historians and literary critics for her chronicles of life in the inner circles of the Confederacy.

The play will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 16 and 17. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors and students.

Chesnut was the daughter of a South Carolina governor and U.S. senator, and she married a lawyer who became a U.S. senator and an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The diary she kept from 1861 to 1865, published after her death, became the basis for Kenneth Graham’s play.

“It’s an interesting combination of fluffy ‘oh, guess who was at the party and who had the best dress’ and some of that stuff, which obviously would have been a huge part of her life as an aristocrat at that time, but also feminist commentary and heart-felt declarations about abolition,” says Biz Lyon, who plays Chesnut in the one-woman show.

Lyon says the two-act play demonstrates some of the contradictions that existed within people who pledged allegiance to the Confederate States of America.

“There’s a point where she grabs a letter she wrote to her husband 20 years ago, which is a fervent abolition document, so there’s no doubt that that was truly felt,” says Lyon. “It’s an interesting dichotomy between her fervent abolitionism and her pride in the Confederacy and her outrage at being forced to be part of the Yankee land.

“Here’s this woman who has grown up in this lifestyle, and she loves the lifestyle, she loves the people around her, but she sees that there’s this great evil in the midst of it. I guess in some sense, she’d like to have it all. Of course, that’s impossible.”

Clayton Center executive director Robert Hutchens first saw “A World Kicked to Pieces” at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston about 10 years ago.

“It sold out every night for two weeks, so it was a very popular event there, but I didn’t know that at the time,” says Hutchens. “I’m a theater person, so I really enjoyed the performance. And from a technical point of view, I was curious to see how a performer could create a drama by herself that would hold my interest for an hour and a half.

“We had taken a boat ride out to Fort Sumter. We were in Charleston, where the war began. So that added resonance to the whole experience. We’re not in Charleston or across the bay from Fort Sumter here, but we are in the sesquicentennial of (the first year of) the Civil War. So things are going on around that add to the whole experience of the play.”

Hutchens, who has been an actor and director for many years, hired Lyon for the role without auditioning her.

“Two or three people had mentioned Biz to me,” he says. “She is a professional actress, and she’s had a lot of professional training. The word ‘brilliant’ was used by one person who had seen her act.”

Lyon wasn’t sure she could fit the show in; she’d just finished directing a production at the Oak Ridge Playhouse, and she had other theater projects on the horizon, not to mention her day job in real estate. But she liked the play, and because she’s the only character, she was able to do much of the prep work on her own at home in Knoxville.

She had never done a one-woman show before.

“Now that I’m starting to be less panicked about the memorization, I’m starting to really enjoy the language and the ways that she’s different from me and the contents of the story,” says Lyon, who studied theater in London and at Juilliard and earned her bachelor’s from The New School in New York.

Hutchens had never directed a one-hander, either, so he found the process to be different from other productions.

“Very often when I direct, I’m a teacher-director, whether I’m working with college students or community people,” he says. “Welcome or not, I feel the need to teach as we go.

“Biz has been taught and has learned. She is a professional actress. Part of it is just to know when I was encroaching on her rights and prerogatives.

“She worked on the script a long time by herself. But at a certain period of time, it seemed that she did need a pair of eyes looking at her, and she did need feedback as far as not only characterization but the structure of the play.”

Hutchens thinks Lyon is going to be a hit.

“I love to watch her,” he says. “Every night there’s some new moment that wasn’t there the night before. I think people are going to be as taken with her as I am and as taken with the character.”

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