My late, great grandfather Charles MacDonald – family man, checkers champ, covert dog fancier – was a World War II combat veteran. I don’t remember how I first learned that, but it helped spark my lifelong interest in Golden Age superheroes; when I read about fictional 1940s heroes like the Justice Society and the Liberty Legion as a kid, I regarded my grandfather as their peer since he fought Hitler’s Nazis just like they did.
As I learned more about World War II over the years – from my grandfather’s stories, from historians and so on – I felt growing appreciation and gratitude for the sacrifices he and other soldiers made for us; but it was also a bit surreal at times, realizing that this benign, bucolic figure I’d known all my life had seen so much darkness and death.
At the Dog Leg Turn of the Road explores the Batchilder family’s similar feelings about a beloved patriarch with a wartime past: enduring love, affection and respect mixed with moments of shock, sympathy and insight regarding Sgt. Lawrence Batchilder’s military service – stories of suffering, trauma and brushes with death (the show’s title references a bloody wartime incident he barely survived, saving others in the process).
Sgt. Batchilder died in 1966, but his family discovered new facts about his World War II service only recently, thanks in part to research done by his grandson Andy Batchilder. Andy and his father Paul Batchilder (son of Lawrence) even took a trip to Europe to retrace Sgt. Batchilder’s wartime travels.
Lawrence Batchilder hadn’t lived long enough to meet his grandchildren, who knew him through stories as a temperamental drinker; but after learning more about his near-fatal wartime heroics, Andy’s sister Melissa realized her grandfather probably suffered from what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Wanting to honour an unsung hero, Melissa wrote At the Dog Leg Turn of the Road as a multimedia theatrical event staged at the Kings Playhouse. The show stars actor Hank Stinson as Paul Batchilder telling stories from the life and wartime service of Lawrence Batchilder. He’s accompanied by projected photos and videos from Batchilder family history and the clan’s more recent European travels, as well as recorded commentaries from relatives and onstage appearances by several family members.
While Stinson is folksy and engaging as Paul, that onstage family presence gives the play added emotional oomph. We get some fine period music from Playhouse honcho Haley Zavo (sister of Andy & Melissa) on piano, plus nice vocals from Zavo and Lawrence’s great-granddaughter Abby Batchilder.
We also get brief visits from Andy and the real Paul Batchilder, who opens the show with a charmingly reticent intro in which he admits that while he’s regarded as something of a local character, he realizes there’s a difference between being a character and being an actor. In a nicely meta touch, Paul concludes by doffing his cap and passing it to Stinson, who dons it to become Paul for the rest of the play.
Working together, Stinson and the extended Batchilder family have crafted a respectful tribute that entertains as well as it informs, as the large, appreciative audience at the show’s debut can well attest.