Sauk City

Sauk City playwright gets “carried” away
Nicola Pearson’s “Carried by the Current” flows to the Phillip Tarro Theatre at Skagit Valley College, Feb. 19–28.
By Jason Miller
(posted 2.9.10)

In the late 1800s, in the small town of Belton, Texas, a group of women led by Martha McWhirter decided that they’d had enough of their abusive husbands.

The women, all from wealthy white families, professed “sanctification” as a way to stop sleeping with their husbands and to stop taking the men’s money. The women sold eggs, butter, and cheese; chopped firewood; and did laundry to raise money for their Common Fund. They lived estranged from their husbands while still under the same roof, causing outrage and hostility in a town that was seething with shame.

Such is the backdrop for “Carried by the Current,” the latest play from Sauk City playwright Nicola Pearson. “Current” will take the Phillip Tarro Theatre stage at Skagit Valley College in February.

“It’s a wonderful and heartwarming story about women overcoming domestic violence,” said Pearson from her home east of Concrete. “It makes your toes curl to hear how well these women did.”

Pearson hit upon the idea for the play while reading the Domestic Violence Sourcebook, by Dawn Bradley Berry.

“There’s a chapter on the legality of beating your wife—there was a time when it was legal and socially acceptable. But at that time there were women who stood up to it; this group was mentioned. I read that and thought, oh, now there’s a subject for a play.”

Blending fact with fiction, “Current” considers what possible events might have  encouraged Martha McWhirter to respond in such a drastic way, for the time. Her decision to push back against a complacent and complicit society eventually led to open abuse against her and her like-minded female companions. Court proceedings were started and McWhirter began “renting” rooms in her house to her “Sanctified Sisters,” though no money ever changed hands. George McWhirter, Martha’s husband, moved out, leaving Martha to run what was, essentially, one of the first safe houses for women in the U.S.

The women’s financial independence and their husband’s frustration and humiliation grew in lock step. While the county court worked to pronounce the women insane and the local churches rallied hard to have them declared heretics, the men nursed their anger until it grew into a mob action on the night of Feb. 13, 1880.

Finding the balance between fact and fiction “has been the most challenging part of writing this play,” said Pearson, who was fine-tuning her sixth draft even while rehearsals were under way.

“What SVC is giving to me is a gift, a chance to learn from this play and develop it further,” said Pearson, speaking of the edits she’s made during rehearsals. The first draft of the play, however, was good enough to win the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award and the Northwest Playwrights Competition.

“Current” is the Essex, England-born playwright’s sixth full-length play, joining previous efforts that have been produced worldwide.

“Amazing and exhilarating”
Director Heather Dyer first learned of the play when Skagit Valley College Instructor and Drama Department Chair Andy Friedlander put a copy of it in her hands and suggested she consider it for her next directing project. “Only do it if you’re inspired by it,” he said.

“I thought it was a very well-constructed play, the characters were great, and the history was interesting. I’d never heard of this group of women and what they’d done, so I was very excited to get a chance to direct this play,” said Dyer. “It’s been an amazing and exhilarating project.”

The play’s producers are following the spirit of the play, too, by offering a “pay what you can” preview performance on Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. Proceeds for that performance will be donated in support of domestic violence services.

At a glance: “Carried by the Current”

Nicola Pearson

Heather Dyer

Phillip Tarro Theatre,
Skagit Valley College

Feb. 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 28 at 2 p.m.

Ticket prices:
General admission: $10
Seniors and non-SVC students: $5
SVC students: FREE


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