In 1879 Libby Beaman boarded the S.S. St. Paul to venture across the Bering Sea toward the Pribilof Islands.
Her presence there wouldn’t be by accident; Libby had asked President Rutherford B. Hayes, a family friend, for permission to accompany her husband to what Russian missionaries once called, “the place that God forgot.”
The ship’s captain told the Washington, D.C. socialite that she would be the first non-Native woman to venture to the remote Pribilofs, where her husband would serve as Assistant to the Senior Revenue Agent.
And her husband’s superior officer told her her presence would be, as Libby later recounted in her journal, “the most unwise and foolhardy thing I’ve ever heard of.”
This week in Juneau, Libby Beaman, as portrayed by actress Elizabeth Ware, will tell audiences what it was like to live in a land that could be both hostile and hauntingly beautiful.
“Libby,” a one-woman play based on Beaman’s diary and sketchbook, has been performed throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, and has earned a four-star review at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. This week’s performances at the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council will mark the first time the play has been staged locally.
“It’s about time!” Ware said. “I’m very much looking forward to coming down and performing for Juneau.”
The Anchorage-based actress has assumed the role of Libby numerous times over the past 13 years.
“This is the story of an adventurous and brave woman,” she said. “She goes into this experience with a colonial attitude, and comes out with the realization that there are others ways of living life, of living in the world, than the ones she’s used to.”
On St. Paul Island, Libby met the Pribilof Aleuts, who had been brought to the Pribilofs a hundred years earlier by seal fur traders and had, under first Russian and later American rule, endured tumultuous upheavals. They had also developed a unique culture, one that couldn’t help but influence Libby’s impressions of life on the island.
“She was drawn into the life and people there, into their community and values,” Ware said.
The director of the play, David Edgecombe, holds a Ph.D. in theater history and directing from Kent State University and is a professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
Ware says that she and Edgecombe first learned of Libby’s story in 1992, when they were working with a theater company in Vladivostok, Russia.
“My mother was planning to come over and asked us what we wanted, and we said, ‘Peanut butter and books in English, please!’” Ware said.
One of the books her mother brought was “Libby: The Alaskan Diaries and Letters of Libby Beaman, 1879-1880,” published in 1987 by Libby’s granddaughter, Betty John.
“The story was fascinating, and I had a sense of it as a one-woman show,” Edgecombe said.
He started adapting the book for the stage in 1997, in response to a request for a play that would commemorate Women’s History Month by celebrating Alaska’s pioneering women.
“Libby” was first performed at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse in Anchorage.
But it is a performance on St. Paul Island, where Libby wrote her journals and drew in her sketchbook, which offered Edgecombe a rare insight into the play’s setting.
“Liz performed in a community center, and in the distance you could hear barking seals, right when she was talking about the seals!” Edgecombe recalled.
“The experience was thrilling to say the least,” Ware said. “Just to be able to go to St. Paul — I still get goose bumps! When we drove up to the place where we were staying, we found it was near one of the seal rookeries. And the only way to describe the sound was as a cacophony. I was brought up in the southwest on a ranch, and the barking of the seals sounds just like cattle — herds and herds of cattle, going nonstop!”
The play’s Juneau performances are being sponsored by the Friends of the Alaska State Museum, and the organization’s vice president, Renee Hughes, said a museum exhibit prompted her desire to bring “Libby” to town.
“Recently the State Museums hosted a traveling exhibit on the Pribilof Islands and the fur sealing industry. This brought back memories of reading the book ‘Libby,’ and then seeing Elizabeth Ware’s performance in Anchorage,” she said. “We discovered that she was still doing the performance and would enjoy bringing the story to the Southeast.”
“The Alaska State Museum is charged with being the stewards of all of Alaska’s history,” added Hughes, “and this is an opportunity for the Friends to showcase a small part of it.”
“Libby” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Friday, Feb. 17 and 18, at the JACC.