PBS drama Mercy Street received a warm welcome on Friday at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va. Students, medical professionals, and Civil War history enthusiasts flocked to the University of Virginia’s Culbreth Theater for an advance screening. The first episode, “The New Nurse,” introduces Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emma Green (Hannah James), two volunteer nurses tending to the wounded at the Mansion House Hotel in Alexandria. Mary is a staunch abolitionist and widow, while Emma is a young Southern Belle. Both Union and Confederate soldiers arrive at this makeshift hospital for treatment, highlighting the regional differences and prejudices in 1862 about society and nationhood.
The series was filmed in Richmond and Petersburg, cities located over an hour away from Charlottesville. The local connections don’t stop there, particularly because the story is based on real people from history. After the war, Emma Green relocated to Woodberry Forest School in Madison County, only minutes from where actress Hannah James grew up. Members of the Green family were present at the event and greeted the cast later in the evening.
After the end credits rolled, there was a Q&A panel led by Gary Gallagher, one of the pre-eminent scholars on the Civil War as well as a professor at UVa. He briefly examined the historical context of the episode, emphasizing that the drama is on point with its depiction of women in the medical field, an establishment that was still dominated by men. Mercy Street also highlights divisions within groups about the meaning of the war and the “hardening process” that soldiers, nurses, and doctors went through. As Gallagher remarked, there’s a tendency to “start at the end” and look back at the period, when in reality there was much uncertainty about the outcome of the war.
He turned over the discussion to executive producer Lisa Wolfinger and cast members Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Returned), Hannah James, and Tara Summers (The Rake). As one might imagine, there were a few challenges presented by the costumes for the ladies: incidents demonstrated on-camera by James (dubbed a “Scarlett O’Hara” by Wolfinger) with a lush white dress that fanned out by as much as four feet. Summers, who plays the role of Anne Hastings, noted the physical constraints of the corsets. “Lung capacity” is severely restricted, she explained, making so that “you literally couldn’t breathe.”
Winstead’s stories would be perfect material for a blooper reel. Her skirts never failed to trip her on the stairs. “Pin it up a little more,” she told the wardrobe assistants, in hopes of a remedy. With a lamp in hand, Winstead took a particularly memorable tumble. For her, it turned into moments of swearing and ensuring that co-star Josh Radnor’s speech was the only fiery part of the day.
Aiming for historical accuracy is important not only in costuming and set props, but also in an actor’s performance. The actresses referred to memoirs and books in their preparation. James relied on another strategy to make the Civil War period readily accessible to her. She kept a diary every day and she exchanged letters with co-star Jack Falahee (How to Get Away with Murder), who portrays Emma’s sweetheart Frank.
Mercy Street launches on PBS on Sunday evenings beginning on January 17, 2016.