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Julie Ince Thompson portrays pioneer woman with grit and grace

``Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey,'' performed by Julie Ince Thompson at the Boston Shakespeare Theatre, was a remarkable evening of storytelling and dance. Thompson based her piece on a book of the same title by Ruth Whitman. Whitman had followed the trail of the Donner party, a sad casualty of the westward expansion, who got blocked by snow in a Sierra Nevada mountain pass during the winter of 1847. From a few letters and her own feelings Whitman reconstructed in poetry the lost journal of Tamsen Donner, a schoolteacher who was going west with her husband.

Julie Ince Thompson, in turn, followed Whitman's lead. But she gave the poems her own voice, literally and figuratively. She portrayed Tamsen Donner as an observer above all. And she did it so vividly that what she saw -- wildflower-studded prairies, wagons, children, and alkali deserts -- seemed to spring up around her on an empty stage. The Donner character didn't talk much about herself. But her way of describing things brought her alive as well as her surroundings. Her curiosity was infectious, and she came across as plainspoken, gracious, and unexpectedly gritty.

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Thompson used her resonant voice to good effect, calling out, half-singing, murmuring. But it was her movements that suggested the wild territory Donner traveled through. She looked tall, lean, and composed in a plain red floor-length dress, hair pulled off her forehead and hanging straight to the middle of her back. Her dance was so restrained, it was hardly dance at all. But it was marvelously illustrative. When she talked about friends in Springfield 1,500 miles away, a stretch of her long arms seemed to both touch them and show how achingly far that is by wagon train. Describing the wildness of the plains, she drummed with her feet and sang about the rocks, odd trees, and dry grass. She seemed to romp over the landscape and also brought to mind native American dances.

In Whitman's book Tamsen Donner speaks simply, but with a 19th-century decorousness as she tells her life story: ``In Springfield, teaching my little scholars botany in a farmer's field, I met George Donner, twice widowed, who gave me my second family. He is a big man, in soul as well as in body, who gives himself freely to new things.''

Thompson caught that simplicity and lilt. Bouncing on a stool as if riding in a wagon, she held her back upright in a ladylike way. But describing the desert, she lay down and her arms and legs rattled against the floor. Rather than detract from her dignity, this made the desert seem a truly desperate place. As she told of the long encampment at Donner Pass, which only her children survived, she became serene again. Her decision to stay behind to care for her husband when the rescue party came was quietly told, and she eulogized him gracefully. She ended by musing -- still curious -- on her children and grandchildren.

Though the horrors of the Donner story had been made graphic, the character I'd spent the evening with was even more real to me. Looking around her, she considered the children, the people in other wagons, and her husband before she talked about herself. Thompson created a character who revealed herself without knowing it. She and Ruth Whitman each contributed to an experience that touched on history but lived as poetry.

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