Patrick Henry College
as Lucie Manette
in A Tale of Two Cities
If there were moments during her senior year that Kirsten Winston questioned the sanity of attempting to complete an ambitious musical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, those thoughts passed quickly. For the multidimensional Winston, it didn’t seem to register that, beyond her 21-credit course load, a competitive moot court schedule and exhausting nights crafting songs and narrative at 3 a.m., her play might never make it to the stage.
So when Winston stepped up to a standing ovation in May following Eden Troupe’s Spring finale of A Tale of Two Cities, having written the script, songs and musical score – as well as starring in the production – she felt simply a peaceful sense of completion. And the quiet knowledge that God had brought full circle a theatrical vision birthed in her early teens.
“It was an exhausting semester, very difficult,” she recalled of the process of authoring every detail of A Tale while competing in moot court and holding down an intense course load. “A lot of the script and dialogue were written at two and three in the morning, after everything else was done. The last ten pages of the script and several new songs were completed around the moot court national tournament (in Virginia Beach),” in which she and her partner, Caleb Dalton, earned individual speaker awards as members of PHC’s third-place team.
Aside from the grueling schedule, wrestling with final script drafts under cover of darkness, she turned in another defining performance before a line of script had been read: she kept her involvement in the project a secret until after the play’s final curtain call, determined that the end product would fail or succeed on its own merit.
“I kept it a secret because I didn’t want people to think it was a joke,” she explained. “I didn’t want people to know I was the author, so I presented it to Eden Troupe under a pseudonym, not knowing whether it would be accepted or not.”
Even among PHC’s notoriously hard-working students, the scope and excellence of Winston’s effort caused jaws to drop throughout PHC's Town Hall as the final credits were read.
“It was a great artistic success,” wrote PHC Provost Gene Edward Veith in an all-student e-mail following the production. “And that one of our students even wrote the play – and wrote it so well – is another tribute to our College and to our mission.”
One might reasonably ask why Winston, or anyone, would subject themselves to such a regimen simply to bring what began as a childhood fancy to a college stage. The answer lies in the story itself, and in the almost biblical parable of sacrifice and redemption Winston saw in the historical novel by Charles Dickens. As a thirteen-year-old, Winston three times abandoned the intimidating novel before watching a black-and-white film adaptation of A Tale, from which she detected its unmistakable thread of Christian love and sacrifice.
A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859, is Dickens’ literary portrait of the years leading up to the French Revolution, culminating in the Jacobin Reign of Terror. It tells the story of two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, one a romantic French aristocrat, the other a cynical English barrister, who are both in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette, portrayed, fittingly enough, in Eden Troupe’s version by Winston.
“I have to admit that, as a child, I found the book dry and boring,” she says, “but after seeing the film starring Ronald Coleman, I was struck instantly by its parallels to the Gospel story. I immediately wanted to turn it into a musical adaptation profiling those themes of redemption and self-sacrifice.”
Thus began an eight-year labor Winston describes as “my attempt to write the great American musical.” With high hopes of completing the play as part of PHC’s DRW (Directed Research and Writing) program, as a freshman Winston saw it suddenly stall with a half-written script, a handful of songs, and very dubious notions of how, or if, it would ever be produced. Setting it reluctantly aside amid the busyness of college life, she doubted its future.
“I thought it was a script that I had written just for me and God,” she recalls.
It wasn’t until her senior year, en route to a tournament with PHC’s moot court team, that her teammate, Dalton (with whom Winston is in courtship in real life, and who also played Lucie’s love interest, Darnay, in the play), offered encouragement. Noting that the Eden Troupe’s Spring performance hadn’t yet been determined, he suggested she complete and submit the script. Taken aback, only reluctantly willing to consider that the play’s time might have come, Winston began drafting the play’s final 60 pages, chopping characters, condensing scenes and omitting extraneous plot points. She also began composing new songs and, in furious 3 a.m. writing sessions, “distilling the play’s major themes down to big impressions.”
The resulting stage musical proved, by any measure, to be a resounding dramatic success, with Winston and a seasoned Eden Troupe cast delighting three consecutive sellout crowds. Still, the author guarded her identity from all but the troupe’s close knit directorial team.
“It was a wonderful experience,” says Assistant Director Heather Terwilliger. “There were moments during rehearsals when Kirsten was almost simultaneously teaching everyone their parts without sheet music, sitting at the piano writing music, tweaking the script and practicing her part. It takes a lot of energy to believe in something that much.” Winston also credits Director April Wright with a significant role in the drafting and editing process.
The play proved for Winston to be the shining capstone of an already distinguished PHC career. Having graduated with “highest honors” with a Classical Liberal Arts degree, Winston successfully copyrighted her play and is enjoying a leisurely summer, praying about the future, working as a counselor at PHC teens camps, and weighing offers from churches and theater groups who want to perform her patented Tale of Two Cities.
“I find it amazing that God gave this project back to me in this way,” she says, beaming. “God’s hand of blessing was on every aspect of it, and I couldn’t have asked for a better, more dedicated cast. To think, I was just a 13-year-old who wanted to write a musical showing people what it means to have somebody else die for you. This play shows how far vengeance and hatred can go… and the power of love to reconcile and redeem it.”
For more information on ordering Winston’s original soundtrack on CD (recorded by the original Eden Troupe cast), go to firstname.lastname@example.org.