By Matt Decker
Wayne Issleb has spent much of the past decade learning about and portraying one of America’s best military leaders and 18th president, President Ulysses S. Grant, as a reenactor on Civil War battlefields across the country. For the past three years, he and a small group of reenactors have performed his original play based on Grant’s life.
This Saturday, Issleb and company will bring “An Evening with General Grant” to the Theater on the Square for a one-night-only performance. The curtain rises at 7:30 p.m.
“We do about six productions per year,” Issleb said, adding that he wrote the play in 2015 to give himself a way to tell Grant’s story during winter months, when the reenactment season is in a lull.
“We find Grant in his parlor, July 23, 1885 — on the day of his death — having just finished his memoirs a week prior,” Issleb said. “He takes the audience through a 63-year journey of his entire life.”
“You’ll see a very young Grant as a boy. You’ll see him in his full West Point uniform as a teenager, during the Mexican Civil War, as a general in the Civil War and as president.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Issleb spent years as a Civil War reenactor, only portraying Grant after growing his beard out in 2009, when friends and fellow reenactors said he resembled the famous Union general. Taking his role seriously, Issleb began researching Grant from then on, learning as much as he could while putting together a collection of period-accurate uniforms, suits and campsite equipment.
Since that time, Issleb has portrayed Grant at reenactments across the country, and even appeared in a couple of documentary films. He first portrayed General Grant in Pulaski County during the 2016 Old Settlers Days festival, and returned last year with his command tent and attendants, as well.
Writing the play was a natural extension of his work, he said. He said he knew he had something when his first show, a benefit for the Antioch, Illinois, 1863 Meeting House, sold out. Since then, he said, the show has grown and changed, but the central mission of telling Grant’s story has remained the same. Each show ends with a question-and-answer session, where Issleb eagerly shares his knowledge.
“(During reenactments,) I go out into the field, and I portray General Grant with his field headquarters, but that’s only a six-month thing,” he said. “In the off-season, I wanted something to bring the production indoors. (The play) keeps me busy throughout the year, and it’s also a way to give people who don’t want to walk around in 100-degree temperatures, a chance to come indoors, see the show and learn about General Grant.”
Tickets to “An Evening with General Grant” are $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 12 and younger. Advance tickets are available at the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau in St. Robert, St. Robert Family Dental, Lone Oak Printing in Waynesville. A limited number of tickets may be available at the Theater on the Square box office, but seating is limited.