‘Mercy Street’ takes its bow for Alexandria premiere

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‘Mercy Street’ takes its bow for Alexandria premiere
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Correction: The Alexandria Film Festival hosted the premiere of ‘Mercy Street,’ not the AMC Hoffman Center. The Times regrets the error.

By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)

On January 17, television viewers across the country will be transported to Civil War-era Alexandria in the new series “Mercy Street,” the first original drama to be produced by PBS in over a decade.

But ahead of the show airing on TV, a smorgasbord of city luminaries got the chance for a sneak peek on November 5 as the Alexandria Film Festival hosted the series’ premiere at AMC Hoffman Center on Swamp Fox Road, complete with appearances from historical interpreters, the lead actors and executive producers, all on a red carpet close to what is normally the theater’s ticket booth.

The first episode, entitled “The New Nurse,” begins the story in 1862, when Dorothea Dix (Cherry Jones), the superintendent of Union Army nurses, assigns newcomer and abolitionist Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from what was then known as Washington City to a field hospital in Union-occupied Alexandria.

Phinney quickly becomes one of the chief protagonists in the story, but she is initially shocked to see the battle wounds and suffering being experienced by soldiers brought in from the battlefield to what was the Mansion House Hotel but has been repurposed for the war effort.

“It was much more civilized in Washington City,” Phinney says as she views the scene of numerous soldiers awaiting treatment from the under-resourced and overstretched field surgeons, one of whom is Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor).

Meanwhile, the owners of the hotel remain at the site, even as their rooms continue to fill with the wounded and dying, and it is from there that the audience meets young Emma Green (Hannah James), one of the family’s daughters.

Green is a Confederate supporter but is concerned about the fate of some of the soldiers being brought in, including love interest Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Stringfellow, whom she worries is either dead or wounded.

The third and final lead is Anne Hastings (Tara Summers), a knowledgeable if proud nurse who says she learned everything she knows from her work alongside the legendary Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War a decade earlier. She demonstrates and lectures on various wartime nursing techniques, and is quick to make Phinney feel she is unlikely to measure up to her high standards.

All the characters in “Mercy Street” are based on real people who lived in the Port City during the Civil War, with the scripts and plot meticulously crafted using diaries, memoirs, newspaper clippings of the time and other primary sources. In addition, the series used a number of historians and experts as consultants, whether it be on warfare, medicine or the etiquette of the time.

“We assembled a large panel of advisors and experts, because the thing about this story is there’s so many facets to it,” executive producer Lisa Wolfinger said in an interview on the red carpet. “We couldn’t just do it with one historian. It wouldn’t have worked. We actually ended up with a very large panel of advisors. We would revolve advisors depending on the scenes we were shooting, and I think that worked pretty well.”

The series itself was not filmed in Alexandria; instead, producers shot in both Richmond and Petersburg. But the actors felt right at home when they arrived in Alexandria and explored some of the historic places where the series is based, including the Carlyle House, which was the Mansion House Hotel.

“We played in a make-believe Green house, but then you’re actually in there,” said Summers in an interview on the red carpet. “There’s a sense of familiarity because you know the set so well, but then you’re actually in somebody’s home.”

Being able to have the series premiere in Alexandria, about two and a half months before it is due to be broadcast, was an experience the producers and cast relished.

“I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying, especially if hopefully at the end of the night everyone is pleased, if not hopefully enthralled, with what they experienced,” executive producer David Zucker said. “Hopefully we’ve honored the city and told a story they can be proud of and revel in.”

And with Visit Alexandria having planned a number of visitor experiences to tie in with the launch of “Mercy Street,” there will be plenty of ways for visitors and residents alike to experience the subject of PBS’ newest drama.

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