The Copperhead

By Augustus Thomasthe copperhead at city lit

Directed by Kathy Scambiatterra

At City Lit Theater, Chicago

Worthy Civil War tale by early realism playwright Augustus Thomas a winner!

City Lit Theater opens their five year commemoration of the Civil War (2011-2015) during its sesquicentennial with Augustus Thomas’ 1918 play, The Copperhead. This part one of their of their Civil War Project is a theatrical treat!

Although Augustus Thomas may be unknown to contemporary theatre audiences, he was considered a “great” playwright in his time (1890’s – 1920’s). He used realism to tell regional American stories.  The Copperhead made a stage star out of Lionel Barrymore and was Thomas’ most successful play.

the copperhead at city lit

Director Kathy Scambiatterra has assembled a fine cast each sporting excellent central Illinois accents depicting the 1860’s and early 20th Century.  The Copperhead tells the story of Milt Shanks (the commanding Mark Pracht) an Illinois man and friend of Abe Lincoln who also demonstrated Southern sympathies during the Civil War as did many in the border states.  He was torn when his son Joey (Gannon Reedy), at age 16,  joins the Union Army. Milt clams to be a pacifist but we see that he is a member of an underground organization – The Copperheads – a group determined to help the Confederates succeed.

As the war drags on, letters from Joey, who is now at the siege of Vicksburg,  tell of his bravery yet Milt becomes more estranged from the town folks when he becomes involved with an affair that leads to murder charges and a prison sentence. When Joey dies at Vicksburg, Milt’s ostracism from his family and the town boils over.

Act two, moves the action to 1903 where Milt, now an old man, lives with his granddaughter Madeline King (Kate Tummelson), Boston educated, who aspires to be the next local school teacher as does a relation of Milt’s arch enemy.  Milt, not wanting to spoil Madeline’s ambitions (and her possible marriage), decides to confront his past after forty years of silence. The confrontation scenes were well executed.

The shocking ending is most sympathetic to Milt turning him from hated turn-coat to quiet American hero. We see the price and effects of Milt’s secret after forty years.  See this well acted show to enjoy a fine period drama. Mark Pracht’s excellent performance as the low-key Milt Shanks leads a terrific ensemble in a rarely produced classic American drama. The Copperhead does justice to the American Experience through a well structured play.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: April 12, 2011

Jeff Recommended

For full show information, go to The Copperhead page at

At City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL, call 773-293-3682,, tickets $25, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through May 15, 2011.

Leave a Reply