REVIEW: "MATINICUS: THE STORY OF ABIGAIL BURGESS" — Chance Theater
Updated: May 20
A Heroine For All Seasons
When lighthouse keeper Samuel Burgess moved his family to Matinicus Rock in the mid-19th century, Abbie Burgess thought her biggest concern was simply going to be pure boredom. Little did she realize that when the winds changed weeks later, she would find herself thrust into the seemingly impossible tasks of not only protecting her family members for 21 days from the flooding rains of a raging nor’easter — along with some chickens — but finding a way to keep the lights brightly lit for any passing ship to miss those rocky, perilous shores.
Perhaps you’ve not heard of Abigail Burgess until now. In short, she is an acclaimed legendary figure in lighthouse history and lore. The true story of her heroic “keeping of the lights” in her father’s absence (her father had sailed to the mainland to restock much needed food and supplies) from Matinicus Rock Light Station, a 32-acre granite island 25 miles off the coast of Maine, during that severe and persistent storm in 1856, has prompted several popular books, folk songs, children’s TV programs, and a radio drama. Even a Coast Guard ship has been named after her.
And now, Chance Theater presents the World Premiere of “Matinicus: The Story of Abigail Burgess” as part of their exclusive “On the Radar” New Works Program, which supports the creation of diverse new stories by emerging U.S. playwrights. Written by Jenny Connell Davis and directed by Katie Chidester, the play is scheduled to run from May 5th through June 4th on the Fyda-Mar Stage at Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center in Anaheim.
Author Jenny Connell Davis, whose plays include “Dragon Play,” “Goddess of Mercy,” “As I See It,” and “Scientific Method,” was the resident playwright at Chance in 2016 and has gone on to write screenplays and teleplays for major media companies like Fox Family and Sony. She has also been a finalist or semi-finalist for Seven Devils, BAPF, the Nicholl, and the Heideman Award, has been an honorable mention on the Kilroys list (2014, 2015) and for the Jane Chambers Award (2014), and has been twice-nominated for both the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Lark/PONY fellowship.
Director Katie Chidester (MFA in Directing/University of North Carolina) has over a dozen years as executive member of The Hunger Artists Theatre Co., and has recently remounted “Beautiful Star: An Appalachian Nativity at Triad Stage. Other credits include “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (UNCG), “Machinal” (Long Beach Playhouse), and “Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (The Hunger Artists), among others.
Brilliantly brought to life by OCTG Theatre Award-nominated actress, Aubrey Saverino (Chance Theater: “Cry It Out;” Off-Broadway: “God of Vengeance;” Netflix: “The Week Of," an Adam Sandler film), this tale of humor and heroism highlights how far some will go to keep their lights shining, and demonstrates how small actions can make a big difference. Aubrey’s magnetic solo performance on the official opening night this past Friday was more than a well thought out journey of volume, texture and intensity. It was larger than life.
Based on the true story of Abigail Burgess, Ms. Saverino (who has an MFA in Acting from The Old Globe/USD) swept away the audience completely while embodying the young teenager’s exploits, chronicling her adventures and her challenges of isolation, acting out the 90-minute narration in a wide range of emotions and subtlety. It was a moment in time where your heart feels like it has suddenly doubled in size and your gaze doesn’t leave the actor’s face — you’re utterly captivated.
It takes someone with a special kind of strength to endure the lonely life of tending lamps in a lighthouse, and Abbie Burgess was that special kind of person. She was a strong girl, and as capable as any man at filling the lanterns, trimming the wicks, and cleaning the lamps and windows of the lights in the two separate towers. And she didn't mind the responsibility.
According to archaic records of the Lighthouse Board describing the crusty mass of bedrock they lived on, “There is neither tree nor shrub, and hardly a blade of grass on the rock. The surface is rough and irregular and resembles a confused pile of loose stone. Portions of the rock are frequently swept over by waves which move the huge boulders into new positions.”
Samuel Burgess became keeper in 1853. Burgess and his invalid wife, Thankful (Phinney), moved to the station with several of their ten children; their oldest daughters had already married. Their oldest son, Benjamin, soon left to earn a living as a fisherman. Abbie, the Burgess's oldest unmarried daughter was actually born on Matinicus Island in August 1839, and had quickly learned to light the whale oil lamps and perform other duties around the Rock. In the lighthouse, she found a lightkeeper's log, which detailed great storms that had struck Matinicus Rock before, including a supercell storm the year she was born that had destroyed the original lighthouse.
The family lived in a home near the lighthouse, and Abbie became concerned that if a gale came, it could get damaged, and Thankful would be unable to be moved. So, in December 1855 she transferred Thankful's bedroom to a small room in the lighthouse itself. Less than a month later the devastating gale struck.
In January, Samuel had left Abbie, Thankful, and her younger sisters to take care of the lighthouse while he went to obtain much-needed supplies in Rockland — medicines for his sick wife, food for the family, consumable stores for the lights and feed for the chickens. The lighthouse cutter that was supposed to have supplied the family had not shown up for its September delivery, and food and oil for the lights were running low. He feared that the family might be stuck on the island throughout the winter with no supplies.
Almost as soon as he had left, the wind shifted and a hurricane-force gale began, driving sleet, rain and snow before them. It blew for three days, with waves so high they overran the island with knee-deep, icy water, leaving the island virtually underwater. Their home was completely washed away, and Abbie and her sisters had to secure the lighthouse windows to keep the waves from breaking them in. The lower level flooded, and they were forced to seek refuge in the north lighthouse tower. Abbie even managed to rescue all but one of their chickens. Clutching her hens, she made it back with saltwater at her heels. Yet, throughout this ordeal, she managed to keep the lights burning.
She wrote in the keeper's log: "If they [the towers] stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the Rock. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father's."
Nor’easters storms actually arrived from the southwest or the south and moved north or northeast, but because the wheeling circulation pattern often brought winds from the northeast, sailors called them nor’easters. Penobscot Bay, where Matinicus Rock was situated, was prone to these fierce storms in winter and spring. Lightkeepers at Matinicus Rock had reported waves breaching the island from the very start. The first lighthouses on the site were built of wood. They were heavily damaged by storm waves and eventually torn down by the sea. They were replaced with granite towers connected to a granite dwelling in 1846.
Years later, she wrote a letter to a friend of hers, describing how they survived the terrible storm: “…Early in the day, as the tide arose, the sea made a complete breach over the rock, washing every movable thing away, and of the old dwelling not one stone was left upon another.”
To fend off starvation, Abbie gave her mother and sisters a daily ration of a cup of cornmeal and an egg. Then after three weeks her father finally returned. Samuel Burgess was not inclined to support Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and eventually lost his job as lighthouse keeper. Abbie was able to stay at the lighthouse, however, as assistant to lighthouse keeper John Grant. He had four sons who lived on the rock with him, and she married one of them — Isaac. Together Abbie and Isaac worked as assistant lighthouse keepers, and in 1875 they moved with their four sons to keep Whitehead Light for 15 years off St. George, Maine.
Abbie Burgess died June 16, 1892 in Portland. In her last letter she wrote that she often dreamed of the old lamps at Matinicus Rock. She wondered if the care of the lighthouse would follow her soul after it left her worn-out body. “If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it to be in the form of a lighthouse or a beacon,” she concluded.
Fifty years later, maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow located Abbie Burgess’ grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in Thomaston, Maine. And in honor of her great adventure, Snow placed a small lighthouse at her grave.
The Coast Guard also named a buoy tender in Rockland after Abbie Burgess. And authors Peter and Connie Roop wrote the much-loved children’s book about her, called “Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie.” Today, Matinicus Island now belongs to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, where The National Audubon Society uses the dwellings to conduct research on migrating seabirds and Atlantic puffins.
CHANCE THEATER PRESENTS, THE WORLD PREMIERE OF MATINICUS: THE STORY OF ABIGAIL BURGESS, STARRING AUBREY SAVERINO; Written by JENNY CONNELL DAVIS; Directed by KATIE CHIDESTER; Scenic/Lighting/Costume Designer CHRIS QUICK; Sound Designer OSCAR GARCIA; Stage Manager JORDAN JONES; Dramaturg JENNY JACOBS; Props Designer BEBE HERRERA; Executive Producers RACHELLE MENAKER & EDDIE SCHULLER; Season Producers BETTE & WYLIE AITKEN; Associate Season Producers THE FAMILY OF MARY KAY FYDA-MAR; Executive Artistic Director OANH NGUYEN; Managing Director CASEY LONG.
Performances: May 13th through June 4th, Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 3PM & 8PM, Sundays at 3PM. One hour, 30 minutes with no intermission. Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken arts Center is located at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. Tickets are $25-39 and can be reserved at www.chancetheater.com or call (888) 455-4212.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Doug Catiller