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Brother Rat Marks VMI Theatre’s Return

woman shaking hands with a cadet

Joellen Bland congratulates the cast of Brother Rat after their performance April 24 in Gillis Theater.—VMI Photo by H. Lockwood McLaughlin.

Mounting a comeback after the coronavirus pandemic made the theater go dark in 2020, the VMI Theatre rallied this spring to stage Brother Rat, a classic play about barracks life April 23-25. In-person attendance was limited to members of the VMI community, with a virtual option available for others.

Members of the cast, many of whom were 3rd and 4th Class cadets, began rehearsals in March, taking precautions to keep themselves safe, including limiting the number of people in Gillis Theater at any one time. During the performances, cast members wore clear masks so audience members could see their faces.

Adapted and directed by Joellen K. Bland, longtime VMI Theatre director, Brother Rat was the creation of John Monks Jr. and Fred Finklehoffe, both Class of 1932. In her director’s notes for the play, Bland wrote that the two “were serving confinement and looking for some way to pass the time” when they wrote Brother Rat as their senior thesis project. This spring’s production marked the fifth time Brother Rat has been staged at VMI since 1979.

“This good-natured vision of cadet life reminds us all that our college years and the friendships they foster play a decisive role in forming our characters and values,” Bland wrote in the play program.

“Every college student undergoes this maturation, but at VMI the ties formed through the brother rat system take on almost mystical significance. Nowhere else do the joys shared, the anguish suffered, the obstacles overcome, the loyalty felt by cadets find fuller expression than in this unique play.”

During the 1930s, the play went on to success well outside of Lexington, as it was staged on Broadway more than 570 times between December 1936 and April 1938. In 1938, it was made into a movie directed by William Keighley. The movie starred future president Ronald Reagan and his soon-to-be first wife, Jane Wyman.

While cadet theatrical performances have been staged for decades, the VMI Theatre as it is known today has been in existence since 1970. Before the pandemic, Bland, who’s been involved with the theater since 1978, had been planning a 50th anniversary celebration involving VMI Theatre alumni from many decades. It’s a dream and a plan that Bland is determined to keep alive.

“We still hope to safely celebrate, but it may be our 52nd or 53rd [anniversary],” she said recently.

  • Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing