Sunday, January 26, 2014

Will the Civil War Never End?

Downstairs at New York’s City Center, the Women’s Project Theater presents a play about the United States, human beings, divisions, and Pickett’s Charge.  Director Daniella Topol has guided her fine actors in an engaging and engrossing play about us, then and now.

Jessica Dickey's Row After Row is a treat, stimulating heart and mind, beautifully acted and directed.  The clever scenic design by Clint Ramos even provides a stimulating smell — wood, woodchips, and sawdust surround the warm set of an old wood and stone pub. 

Playwright Jessica Dickey has lived in Gettysburg, where history is not confined to the past.  Civil War re-enactors travel to each battlefield of the war and dress in Confederate and Union army regalia and weaponry as accurately as they can afford, and repeat battles.  At Gettysburg, the playwright participated herself in a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge and found a story to express.  Thus Row After Row.

If you do not recall, Pickett’s Charge was the disastrous “hail Mary” play in the Battle of Gettysburg, in which Confederate soldiers marched then ran a mile through an open, undulating field, defenseless, toward their Union enemy. Not surprisingly, they were slaughtered by enemy cannon fire, a furious hail of bullets, and finally, when a decimated group made it to the Union line, bayonets and fists.  Over 2000 soldiers died that day, and well over half of them were Confederates.  Thousands more were wounded and captured.  It was devastating.  It still is.

Rosie Benson as Leah, Erik Lochtefeld as Tom, and PJ Sosko as Cal.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg
In Row After Row, the scene opens on three people — Lieutenant General James Longstreet watching the charge, a Union deserter, and a woman in the garb of a Confederate soldier.  Moments later, we see the woman sitting on a stool in a stone-walled pub, and the two men enter exuberantly.  They are re-enactors, the men having done this for 20 years, the woman a new participant.  The action of the play shifts back and forth between these three re-enactors in the present day and their counterparts during the real battle of 1863.  Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau creates these time shifts subtly by a dimming, almost clouding of the lights when we revisit the sooty battlefield — the heat of a July day, men, horses, guns, and cannon all collaborating to kick up dust and smoke — then a slight bump to the soft but brighter light within the modern-day pub. 

The three actors are compelling in both eras.  Rosie Benton plays Leah in the present, a former modern dancer from New York, and a resident of Gettysburg in the past.  Leah simmers with anger and pain, yet an openness to new experiences and new people.  Benton is sharp, precise, and soft all at once, quite marvelous.  Erik Lochtefeld is Tom in the present, a schoolteacher, a re-enactor who chooses each year to play the Yankee deserter — an outsider who sues for peace in both eras.  Lochtelfeld’s skill and warmth bring us into his heart in both time periods.  PJ Sosko is Cal, who takes his re-enactments very seriously, and chooses to be General Longstreet.  Leah’s description of him as a “bona fide meathead” is probably the kindest epithet of the evening, yet he’s not all bad. He and Tom have been friends since 6th grade, but in recent years Cal has seen less and less of Tom and is almost as heartbroken as General Longstreet is upon watching his men charge to their pointless deaths.  Sosko grabs us ungently and brings us along as he tries to grasp the world around him.

Rosie Benson as the Woman in 1863.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg.
Cal and Leah provoke one another once Leah sits at Tom and Cal’s traditional table.  Cal immediately dubs her a “farb” — a person who takes part in a re-enactment with less than authentic fabrics and costumes and weaponry.  A fight between the two men and another that includes the woman are brilliantly choreographed by J. David Brimmer, who more than met the challenge in the theatre’s close three-quarter staging.  

The Woman, Sosko as General Longstreet, and Lochtefeld as Union deserter in 1863.  Photo Credit:  Carol Rosegg.
Eventually we learn enough about these three people to hope they find their way, make the best choices, to do their part in making their lives, and our union, “more perfect.”  Like the Civil War, the past is not done with, and lives on in the present.

Cheers to all the cast and crew and creators of this fine piece of drama that includes some hearty laughs leavening the serious subject matter.  It was a satisfying evening at the theatre, but only runs to February 16th, so order tickets here: 

~  Molly Matera, off to re-read some history that Jessica Dickey has clearly read already.

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