'Unforgettable' play pays tribute to Howard County couple, Korean War veterans

Playwright Susan Thompson portrays her mother, Cleora, and actor Kermit Dunkelberg plays Dwight Thompson in the play "Unforgettable: Letters from Korea."
(photo courtesy of Susan Thompson)

The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington might seem an odd place for a play memorializing a Howard County couple. But on a pleasant summer evening earlier this year, that's exactly what was showing.

The play was "Unforgettable: Letters from Korea." It was written by the couple's daughter, Susan Thompson, a professional actress and playwright, and staged July 25 at the Korean War Veterans Memorial during a week of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.


Thompson wrote "Unforgettable" after discovering hundreds of letters her parents had exchanged during their courtship while her father served in Korea.

Thompson came across the letters 50 years after they were written, as she helped her aged and ailing mother (her father had just died) out of the family home in Columbia about a decade ago. Her parents had been Howard County mainstays for some 30 years: Dwight Thompson was a deputy state's attorney and later a respected Ellicott City attorney in private practice; Cleora Thompson was the county's first archivist, and helped get numerous county buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.


Thompson was struck by the letters, especially those written while her father was an Army officer in Korea and her mother was finishing her senior year at the University of Connecticut.

"When I read my parents' letters I was moved by them, not only because they were my parents, but because they were historically significant, detailed and rich in emotions," Thompson explains. "They were specific to time and place and particular to them, and yet they were universal because they were dealing with love and war."

The play "is really a story of love and how it endures through time." Overarching the love story, she adds, are "the greater historical details of a brutal, bitter war that seems little noted by history."

Sending all my love

Dwight Thompson was born in 1928 in Seymour, Conn. He joined the Army after high school, served in the occupation of Japan following World War II, and then used the GI Bill to attend the University of Connecticut. After graduation in 1952, he returned to active military duty; one year later, he was sent to Korea as a second lieutenant.

Born in 1931, Cleora Barnes grew up in New Haven and met Dwight at the University of Connecticut. She was a senior when he was shipped off to Korea.

The bulk of the play takes place in 1953, when the pair, in love but separated by 7,000 miles, exchanged a flurry of sometimes playful, sometimes angry, always passionate and articulate letters. But part of the play  takes place 50 years later, when Cleo is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Dwight insisted on being her main caretaker during her illness, his daughter says, taking her to work in his law office and even to court, dressing her for church every Sunday.

In Thompson's play, all of the dialogue between the two comes from the letters. The action is interspersed with songs from that era, performed live onstage by two musicians, and two giant screens on either side of the stage depict scenes from the couple's marriage and the war.

"Unforgettable" was first staged in July 2012 at Washington's Arena Stage, and also at a couple of venues in the Boston area. But this summer's performance, which attracted mostly Korean War veterans and their families in Washington for the anniversary, was special for playwright Thompson.

"I felt very, very, very honored to be part of that event," says Thompson, 55, a Wilde Lake High School graduate who now lives in Massachusetts. "It meant so much to us to reach that audience."

Korean War veterans interviewed after the play at the war memorial said they were impressed and moved.

"It was fantastic," said Joe Fishman, who traveled from New Jersey to attend the anniversary commemoration. "It was almost like a biography for me -- exactly what I went through. … It was really a great show."


"It was good ­-- true to life," said Joseph Fields, in town from Kentucky.

Also impressed and moved were a handful of friends and Thompson family members who had come to see the play.

"Susan did a wonderful job," said the playwright's brother, Jon Thompson, who lives in Lovettsville, Va. "And she had great material." He praised the use of 1950s songs in the play (such as the title song, "Unforgettable"), noting that his parents both loved music.

"I thought the play was wonderful," said Bob Williams, an attorney who worked with Dwight for years in the State's Attorney's Office. "They were two bright human beings, and they shined together."


In honor of Veterans Day, "Unforgettable" will be performed this month in Osage, Iowa. But Susan Thompson would love the play to get at least one more audience: in Howard County, where her parents made a home for more than 30 years and became pillars of the community.

"We would love to bring the show to Howard County," she says. "My parents were so involved in Howard County, with church, the community."

The couple landed in Maryland when Dwight asked to be stationed at Fort Meade so he could attend the University of Maryland Law School. He graduated from law school in 1972, retired from the Army in 1973, and immediately went to work as a prosecutor with the Howard County State's Attorney's Office. He worked there for 20 years, and then maintained a private law practice in Ellicott City until he died in 2004.

Cleora, meanwhile, had earned her master's degree in city planning while raising the couple's five children and pursued her interest in city planning as she followed her husband at postings throughout Europe and the United States.

After they moved to Columbia in the early 1970s, she took a job as coordinator of the Baltimore Neighborhood Survey for the Commission of Historic and Architectural Preservation. From 1975 to 1981, she was the first archivist for the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning. Five years before her death in 2010, her personal archives of photos and surveys -- spanning roughly 500 local historic sites -- were donated to the county.

A showing of "Unforgettable" in Howard County might not be farfetched. One of the people who attended the July performance was Carol Myers, a member of the Howard County Historical Society's board of directors. She called the play "terrific," and at a board meeting after seeing it, raised the possibility of bringing "Unforgettable" to the county, in part because of the Thompsons' place in county history.
"Anything that helps preserve the history of Howard County, I'm all for," she said.

Historical Society Executive Director Sean Gladden said it would be unlikely the society could sponsor such a performance. However, he said, the society could facilitate its showing here in partnership with other organizations. "It was very preliminary," Gladden said of the board's discussion. "But we would love to see it here in Howard County, one way or another."

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