The Herald Bulletin

April 26, 2013

Historic Benjamin Harrison site an inviting venue for theater

By Nancy R. Elliott
The Herald Bulletin

INDIANAPOLIS — Step into the parlor, take a seat, and prepare to be part of a unique theater experience in the mansion that was once home to Benjamin Harrison, 23rd president of the United States.

Harrison built the 16-room Italianate Victorian house in 1874-75, and lived there until his death in 1901 — excluding his years 1889-1893 in the White House.

The meticulously preserved site in the historic Old Northside district of Indianapolis is not only a destination in and of itself, it makes a delightful venue for a resident troupe of performers named Candlelight Theatre.

The troupe is currently performing its spring production, “Trapped!” — a suite of three one-act mysteries performed in the candlelit setting of various rooms in the house.  

Theater-goers will get up close to the action in the back parlor for “The Rats” by Agatha Christie. “Sorry, Wrong Number” by Lucille Fletcher takes place in the master bedroom. Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” will transfix the audience in the dining room.

The rooms of the Harrison mansion create an intimate setting for the Candlelight Theatre productions. It is also a demanding one for the theater troupe. The volunteer performers play out their scenes directly in front of each small audience, basically sharing the stage with them.

Candlelight Theatre is the inspiration of creative director Donna Wing, and now celebrates its 10th anniversary. The unconventional theater, formerly known as Victorian Theatre by Candlelight, is a popular offering with many repeat patrons. It’s also a key fundraiser for the home.

The troupe offers productions in the spring and fall, as well as several other days throughout the year. The autumn ghost tale productions are entirely the work of resident playwright James Trofatter, who takes pains to make his works historically accurate.

Patrons are thus both entertained and educated by the experience. This fall, patrons will see “Spirits of Blue and Grey,” a collection of Civil War ghost stories.

“It’s part of the mission of this home to educate the public,” said Trofatter. While the playwright can tap into the Victorian ambience of the mansion, Trofatter must also protect the Harrison legacy at the site.

“You have to write plays in which you can’t touch anything,” said Trofatter.

About 30 dedicated volunteer thespians, most of whom have been with Candlelight Theatre for years, assume multiple responsibilities of acting, directing, makeup, props and more.

Wing recalled a play to be performed in the dining room which held a curio containing White House china at one end, and a table with a lit candelabra on the other. The play called for a fight scene.

“We actually had to fight in that room,” said Wing. “We did that scene over and over — there was just no room for error.”

While the theater is a popular draw, about 28,000 people a year come through just to tour the house.

“We’re very lucky that we have a lot of original items,” said curator Jennifer Capps. She said that about 75 percent of the items are original belongings of the Harrison family.  

In addition to the house tour, on exhibit now through Nov. 10 is “Raising the Hem,” featuring dresses of several first ladies, including Harrison’s wife, Caroline, as well as Mary Lincoln, Grace Coolidge and Mamie Eisenhower.

The site is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and has Sunday hours in June and July. Cost of admission for adults is $10, students 5 and up, $5.