mercy street mary elizabeth winstead josh radnor pbs Mercy Street shows the Civil War through Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead prism

new historical drama series re-examines the Civil War from a fresh perspective as “Mercy Street” premieres Sunday, (Jan. 17), on PBS (check local listings).

The fact-based drama opens in the spring of 1862, in Alexandria, Va., where the lives of two nurses — New England abolitionist Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Southern belle Emma Green (Hannah James) — intersect within Mansion House, a hotel run by Emma’s family that has been transformed into a Union Army hospital. Since the facility also houses some wounded Confederate soldiers, it’s a vibrant microcosm of ordinary Americans on both sides of the conflict.

“The ambition of the show was to take this defining period in American history, but to explore it through an entirely different prism,” explains executive producer David W. Zucker (“The Good Wife”) to Zap2it. “The key decision was to bring the war down to a personal level. We are dealing with the people living in this community and seeing the war that is happening all around and about them.”

Zucker says another member of the creative team, former “ER” executive producer and scribe David Zabel, has compared this approach to “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” Tom Stoppard’s brilliant comedy that looks at “Hamlet” from the perspective of two minor characters.

The diverse ensemble includes Josh Radnor (‘How I Met Your Mother”) as a visionary civilian surgeon, Norbert Leo Butz (“Bloodline”) as a by-the-book Army surgeon, Jack Falahee (“How to Get Away With Murder”) as a Confederate spy, and Gary Cole (“Veep”) as the owner of Mansion House, who is trying to play both sides against the middle for his own profit.

Winstead, who was cast as Mary Phinney just days before filming began, says she was drawn to the character’s forward-thinking sensibilities.

“She had absolutely no qualms at all about saying what was on her mind or doing what she wanted to do,” the actress says. “The more I read about her and about other women of the time, I realized that there were so many women like that. It was a movement at the time, so many feminists who were fighting for the rights of women as well as the rights of African-Americans.”

Among the surprises, Winstead adds, was the discovery that Phinney and her fellow nurses had to fight for a place in the male-dominated hospital.

“You would think they would want all the help they could get, but the women who asked to be allowed to help often were turned away and treated with disdain,” she says. “The doctors and surgeons who were running the hospital had the attitude ‘But what can you do? You’re just a woman.’ These were really the first female nurses of our time, because they said, ‘No, I am going to come here and I am going to lend some help, because you need it.’ They would not take no for an answer.”

Posted by:John Crook