Backstage with “Self-Evidence”

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A long-forgotten Vermont murder trial forms the basis for the winning selection of the 2005 Vermont Playwright Award.

Self-Evidence is inspired by the trial of Rebecca Peake, a Randolph woman convicted of murder and sentenced to hang in 1832. Having raised nine stepchildren and two of her own, her family abandoned her after she was accused of poisoning her stepson Ephraim.

Self-Evidence was written and directed by Maura Campbell of Burlington. Campbell believes that the guilty verdict for Rebecca Peake was a miscarriage of justice.

The play parallels several stories of women at a disadvantage in the 19th century.

Fiona is a young newlywed who has moved into the Peake estate with her husband, some 20 years after Rebecca’s death. She begins to develop headaches and symptoms of depression, much like Rebecca Peake herself.

In this scene, Fiona tells her husband she is worried because the maid has hinted that the house is haunted.

(Fiona) “I know she’s fanciful but I do think something’s wrong.”
(Man) “She may be right about the ghost.”
(Fiona) “What?”
(Man) “Well, there was a murder here.”
(Fiona) “Oh,…”
(Man) “I’m serious. Ahhh Ephraim Peake. His mother poisoned him with arsenic. Put it in the hash. It must have been twenty years ago, something like that.”
(Fiona) “How horrible. Poor child.”
(Man) “Oh, he wasn’t a child. He was twenty, I think.”
(Fiona) “Why would she want to poison him?”
(Man) “Well, something about the farm… he bought it from his father and she didn’t want to live with him so she killed him.”
(Fiona) “What happened to her?”
(Man “She was sentenced to hang.”
(Fiona) “My god.”
(Man) “She didn’t though.”
(Fiona) “She didn’t?”
(Man) “That’s enough ghost stories for one night.”

(Charnoff) In fact, there is a ghost. Rebecca has returned to the home where she spent what by all accounts was an isolated and unhappy life.

In this monologue, the spirit of Rebecca addresses the court, something she had never been allowed to do doing her trial.

(Rebecca) “I’m Mrs. Rebecca Peake, and I’ve lived the last twenty-five years of my life on the Peake farm in South Randolph. There’s 300 acres, best sheep farm in the valley. Before that I come from Massachusetts. Jonathan Peake brought me here after his wife died. She left him with nine children, she did. And I raised them the best I could, and two of my own, Susan and George. I ain’t seen none of them before I come here that day before the sheriff arrested me. That includes my husband. I reckon their ashamed to have a mother in jail. But I am still someone. I am still someone.”

(Charnoff) Rebecca Peake is played by Mary Scripps of Charlotte. Scripps describes Peake as the strange schoolchild that everyone likes to pick on. Her problems were compounded by her bouts with depression and migraine headaches.

(Scripps) “I think she was trying to understand what normal was and people treated her like an outcast, so she didn’t know how to act any other way. The more people made fun of her I think the more her persona developed as somebody that was odd, and she was treated odd, so she acted odd.”

(Charnoff) Playwright and director Maura Campbell became fascinated with Rebecca’s story. She pored over the trial transcripts, and began to see how Rebecca was very much a victim of the period. Prosecutors labeled Rebecca as the devil , and the trial judge, who was also to become a Vermont governor, essentially instructed the jury to find her guilty.

Campbell says that by bringing Rebecca Peake back as a ghost, she was able to give her a voice she never had in her own life.

(Campbell) “Playwrights write about isolation, and there was no more isolated character that I ever found or dreamt up than Rebecca Peake. But also I think I told this story because it was a Randolph story, and I was from that town, and I unearthed her, and I felt responsible, and I was able to give her a voice.”

(Charnoff) Rebecca Peake was convicted on Christmas day, but committed suicide before she could be hanged. By coincidence, or perhaps by cosmic design, the play Self-Evidence opens on the anniversary of her death.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

Note: “Self Evidence” runs at Burlington’s Waterfront Theater through February 18th.

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