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After 14 years, the Pig War’s most famous officer is retiring
George Pickett is arguably the most famous, and most complicated, figure from the military occupation period of San Juan Island.
Pickett came to San Juan Island a 34-year-old, twice-widowed U.S. Army captain, charged with establishing an official American presence on the island while two world superpowers — the United States and Great Britain — worked to resolve a dispute over which nation owned the archipelago.
Two years later, Pickett left San Juan Island and the U.S. Army for his native Virginia, to join Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army after the Southern states seceded from the Union. After July 3, 1863, Pickett walked the earth a haunted man — haunted by the casualties his division suffered at Gettysburg: of 6,260 men, 2,655 were either killed, wounded or captured.
In another two years, after the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Pickett fled to Canada to avoid possible trial for war crimes. He returned to Virginia in 1866 and was later pardoned by Congress. He died July 30, 1875 at the age of 50.
Since 1996, Vouri has given Pickett the opportunity to give his version of the events of his life in a one-man show, “The Life & Times of George E. Pickett.” The production has been staged throughout the U.S., including before the annual meeting of The Pickett Society in Virginia.
But now, after the longest run in the San Juan Community Theatre’s history, the show is being retired. “Pickett” will be staged for the last time May 23 and July 10 at SJCT.
“I’m literally growing out of the part,” Vouri said on the theater’s Web site. “I’m 61 and Pickett died when he was 50.”
Vouri has long been devoted to the interpretation of the history of this region. A former reporter for The Bellingham Herald, he worked for the Whatcom Museum of History and Art before joining San Juan Island National Historical Park as chief of interpretation.
He is the author of four books: “The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay” (Griffin Bay Books, 1999); “Outpost of Empire: The Royal Marines and the Joint Occupation of San Juan Island (Northwest Interpretive Association, 2005), “The Pig War,” (Arcadia, 2008), and “Friday Harbor” (Arcadia, 2009). He co-authored “Friday Harbor” with his wife, Julia, and the San Juan Historical Society.
Vouri said wrapping up “Pickett” this year will give him time to write another book and to move on to another history project.
Accompanied by banjoist Michael Cohen, Vouri relates Pickett’s life from his boyhood in Richmond, Va., to his death in the 1870s while on a business trip. Along the way, Vouri’s Pickett offers a brisk interpretation of the 19th century United States and its territories, touching on almost all of the major themes, while Cohen plays the banjo and sings period songs.
Vouri and Cohen wear uniforms, U.S. and Confederate, and Vouri demonstrates replica weapons and equipment throughout the performance.
Vouri has called the two-act play a “tragicomedy.”
The final shows coincide with the sesquicentennial of the joint military occupation. The May 23 performance will have a Friday Harbor flavor to it, in keeping with the town’s centennial — Vouri’s Pickett will talk about locals like Ed Warbass, who founded the town.
Vouri’s “Pickett” has received high praise.
“It was very special for us. It made us wish that he lived closer so that we could spread him around to other like organizations,” F. Lee Hart III, a member of the board of directors of the Pickett Society.
“We very thoroughly enjoyed it. We thought it was very accurate and very well done. I think we probably picked up a few things (about Pickett’s service in the Northwest). My general impression is, we do know of the service of many other West Point graduates and others that served in the regular army prior to the War Between the States. The entire life of General George Pickett is studied.”
Sunset magazine’s Peter Fish wrote, “Tellingly, in his ... performance, Vouri portrays Pickett in two acts. In the Pig War, he is cocky and comic. In the second act, after Appomattox, he is a living ghost haunted by the carnage he has witnessed.”
The Journal of the San Juan Islands reported in 2000, “Vouri brings a flawed man to life ... But it is during the second act that Vouri demonstrates his acting, writing and storytelling brilliance. The famous charge into the Union lines at Gettysburg has never been so vividly portrayed. ‘An Evening with George Pickett’ is an event no islander should miss.”
Some interesting facts about Vouri’s “Pickett”:
— Vouri formerly wore the uniform worn by actor Stephen Lang in his portrayal of Pickett in the film, “Gettysburg.”
— When Vouri first performed “Pickett,” the show was three hours long. Actor and director Susan Campbell Webster told Vouri, “Darling, it was just too long. I wanted to kill you.”
Vouri carved an hour off the show after he took the stage to an audience of about 20 people. His director and stage manager, Chris de Staffany, took him by the shoulders after the show and said, “That was the best performance you’ve given. Bottle it.”
— “The Life and Times of George Pickett” has been performed more than 100 times in Washington, British Columbia, and Virginia.
What: Michael Vouri’s “The Life and Times of General George E. Pickett.”
Where: San Juan Community Theatre’s Whittier Stage.
When: May 23, 7:30 p.m.; and July 10, 8 p.m.
Tickets: Adults, $15; students, $8; RUSH, $5. Call: 378-3210 or visit www.sjctheatre.org.
This production is sponsored by Roche Harbor Village.