‘Letters’ tells the tales of war

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published November 7, 2017

GROSSE POINTE PARK — As communities across the nation prepare to observe Veterans Day Nov. 11, a group of local middle school students are bringing military stories to the stage.  

Students at Pierce Middle School will present the play “Letters” at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 and 1 p.m. Nov. 18. Written by Evelyn Merritt, the production centers around letters that were written between soldiers and their loved ones during wartime.

Pierce educator Michelle Stackpoole, who teaches broadcast journalism, drama and computer skills, is the show’s director. “Letters” is meant to be performed as a reader’s theater, where the script is read to the audience without sets or props, but Pierce has taken a different approach.

“We added some music, props and costumes and turned it into a full-scale show,” Stackpoole said. “I felt like it was a challenge for the students and still interesting.”

The play spans from the Civil War to the recent Iraq War. Through many wars, there was no texting, emailing or Skype, and letters were the only form of communication between soldiers and their loved ones back home. In the show, the letters are handwritten between parents and their soldier children, boyfriends and girlfriends, a nurse and her sister, and more. There also are a few monologues from soldiers, which are sure to leave an impact.

“The script is fictional, but the situations are the same,” Stackpoole said.

She added that the students gave their characters a backstory.

“They could really make it their own,” she said. “The show is not pro-war or anti-war. It’s about the realities of war and what these people experienced. There are some heavy moments, but also some light points too.”

Eighth-grade student Svea Swanson was cast as Darla, a mother whose son is fighting in the Iraq War. She said the play is like reading a book that leaves you with cliffhangers, and she has gotten to know her character.

“I can kind of picture Darla sitting at the table,” she said. “I feel I can see what I think she would look like.”

It’s eighth-grader Lilly Geer sharing the story of World War I nurse Elsie, who is corresponding with her sister through pen and paper. To transform into Elsie, Geer pictures her on “the battlefield and the noise you hear.”

“There is the smell of death all around me,” Geer said from the stage while in character. “I don’t know how to get the blood out of my clothes.”

In her part, sixth-grade student Lina Baer plays Katie, who writes letters to her boyfriend overseas during World War II. Eighth-grade student Ethan Harr plays Civil War soldier Jim.

“He’s writing to his parents back home about how cold it is,” Harr said.

Eighth-grader Jerry Xi portrays Lewis, a Civil War soldier who is dying in a hospital alone without any loved ones nearby. His letters are to God.

“He can be uplifting at times,” Xi said. “Other times, he’s kind of accepted the fact he’s dying.”

The Pierce eighth-grade students recently visited Washington, D.C., for a class trip. The “Letters” cast members saw some of the war memorials, which made a lasting impression.

“I saw the name of my great-uncle on the Vietnam Memorial. Just looking at the names was overwhelming,” Swanson said. “I think it made everyone look at war differently.”

As an added bonus in the show, students in Stackpoole’s broadcast journalism class have created a video documentary featuring the family members of Pierce staff who are in the military, titled “Local Letters.”

Tickets for “Letters” cost $7 for adults and $5 for students and senior citizens, and can be purchased at the door or at Posterity: A Gallery in The Village, 17005 Kercheval Ave. in Grosse Pointe City. Pierce is located at 15430 Kercheval in Grosse Pointe Park. All active-duty military personnel and veterans receive free admission.