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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Row After Row — People’s Light & Theatre Company

008_1Seven score and thirteen years ago, a relatively new nation, the United States, found itself divided over issues of states’  and human rights that centered primarily on the peculiar institution of slavery. A bloody Civil War was fought, carnage being assured by the military tactics of the time. Battles affected not only soldiers but all neighboring citizens whose land was trampled, whose livestock was commandeered, and whose homes and persons were often disrespected by marauding partisan troops.

The Civil War is a critical moment in American history because it tested whether the new nation brought forth on this North American continent would prevail as a single, unified entity, or separate into two or more sovereign nations, with a resultant bitterness promising more conflict and eternal rancor.

The War Between the States fascinates so much, people have made a lifelong study of it. Battlefields are visited. Memorabilia is collected. History is discussed and debated. Some are so interested in the war, they re-enact its great battles, aiming for strict authenticity and adherence to the way war would be waged in the mid-19th century.

In “Row After Row,” Jessica Dickey introduces us to three of the re-enactors, two men who immerse themselves in Civil War scholarship and who are devoted to making sure every aspect of their maneuvers are in keeping with the reality of the time and place the re-enactment is being staged, and one woman who has just moved to Gettysburg from New York and participates in a  re-do of Pickett’s charge in response to a flyer she saw in a supermarket and as a way to meet people and make friends in her new hometown.

The men, one of whom is a history teacher, are serious about their business. They have spent thousands on buying actual uniforms, weapons, and regalia from the Civil War. They can tell if a fabric or thread count is different from those used by Union or Confederate forces. They know every turn of every battle and intricately discuss how one general triumphed while another disappointed and how their positions may have been reversed. They stay so close to actual events, the teacher in Dickey’s play is assigned to play a deserter looking for a hiding place and seeking pardon when caught by a soldier from the opposite force.

The woman wonders aloud what all the fuss is about and why a re-enactment has to be so true to the actual event. She also wonders why women are only recently, and reluctantly. allowed to be re-enactors and whether the Civil War had any meaningful effect for women and minorities that she says continue to be without the liberty and equality Abraham Lincoln talks about in The Gettysburg Address.

There is the thrust of Dickey’s play. It’s  based on the conceit that the Civil War did one major job. It brought freedom to millions who has been kept as property and made to labor against their will and unrewarded. The question “Row After Row” poses is whether 150 years later, the United States is any further advanced in its including of women, ethnic groups, immigrants, and sexual and religious minorities within the mainstream. The idea it posits is the U.S. has not lived up to the ideals Lincoln expresses when he says, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Dickey’s character, Leah, not one to shy from an argument, uses herself as an example. Of course she mentions current hot-button issues like equal pay for equal work, but she also asks why it took so long for the men of Gettysburg to permit a woman to participate in a community event and why the other characters, Tom ad Cal, are stunned to find her sitting in a part of a bar where the locals understand women are not supposed to tread.

Leah is a forward sort with an attitude and arsenal of direct tactics men rarely encounter in Gettysburg. When Cal, a contractor who is the less welcoming of Leah, and the more doctrinaire about authenticity in re-enactment, gets vehement about a point Leah challenges, she leans across the table they’re sharing and kisses him. Hard and wet right on his beery lips.  A new Battle of Gettysburg has begun.

This is a woman who has come a long way in being able to express herself and take bold stances.  Tom and Cal are not accustomed to her level of candor or forwardness. Tom, the gentler and more appeasing of the men, tries to fit into the politically correct mode Leah practically demands,  but he can be nonplussed by Leah’s iron-fisted parries and attacks and wonders about a bond that, against all odds, seems to form between Leah and Cal.

“Row After Row”  never makes much impact as a play because, while it is watchable and entertains for its duration, it stays on the level of conceit. We become aware of Dickey’s premise and glean what the playwright is saying more from the heated dialogue between Leah and the men than by anything we actually see dramatized.

Dickey takes us from period to period. We are in the Gettysburg of 1863 as well as in the Gettysburg of today. We witness real war scenes in addition to  some that are re-enacted. We see illustrations of what Leah is saying in terms of minorities not participating equally in the American dream, and we understand the particular brutality of the Civil War, fought as it was by men rushing towards each other firing guns and thrusting bayonets, but we rarely have an emotional or visceral response to what we are told or shown.

The problem with “Row After Row” is it remains polemic, and while Dickey’s premise of asking how much freedom the Civil War afforded all people is tantalizingly provocative, her play doesn’t go much beyond the expected or already said.

The issues Leah introduces don’t rise past the discussion level. Points are made early and clearly, so it occasionally becomes tedious to hear them repeated. Some arguments take on a life of their own and give the characters a chance to spar and volley points of view, but tension on the People’s Light stage doesn’t often lead to intensity in Dickey’s play. Especially when you know most of Dickey’s conclusions will favor Leah.

Maybe that’s the crux of the matter. Leah’s point of view rings so soundly in today’s context, it’s difficult for Cal to gain the logical traction to create a real debate that might sway the audience one way then another before individuals makes up their mind about individual points. “Row After Row” becomes pat in terms of whose side we can reasonably be on. Talk of authenticity and tradition makes some mark, but it pales next to whether a woman should be able to participate in a community event or enjoy her beer in a room habit has reserved for men, let alone issues that deal with literal gender-neutral equality. Leah may be adventurous and independent, but she knows many other women aren’t, and she speaks out about more than being permitted to play a soldier in a staged re-enactment.

Characters develop. We learn more about Tom, who as a Jewish man, has some sympathy for Leah’s point of view, and Cal, whose gruff exterior and truculent way of speaking make it surprising when we find out he is a devotee of opera and theater, but these remain pleasant and interesting tidbits, incidentals about characters we like and about whom we don’t mind hearing more. They amuse, but they do not translate or contribute to a meaningful play.

“Row After Row” engages, but it is most thematically effective when Leah makes pronouncements or Cal gives some kneejerk response to something Leah says. Dickey would like the contemporary Civil War, the 21st century conflict conducted along gender lines, to be enacted on the People’s Light stage. She makes a strong attempt to transfer the philosophy Leah espouses to her interaction with Tom and Cal, but the scenes that don’t involve declaiming or arguing, lack depth and have little theatrical effect, a sudden kiss or similar bold tactic from Leah notwithstanding.

In spite of Dickey’s creativity in setting some scenes of on the Gettysburg battlefield of 1863 or of showing how a re-enactment is meant to be guided by facts, “Row After Row” does not rise beyond its words and its central concept about the Civil War not accomplishing all one may hope. Ancillary scenes are pleasant  and entertaining to watch, but they don’t relate to or reinforce Dickey’s basic theme. They show history without commenting on it or inviting the audience to have a strong or mixed reaction.

In a play about conflict, and the repercussions of conflict, Dickey needs to look at Shaw and see how to make her barroom dust-up into an argument in which both sides hold some ground, including some equal ground. “Row After Row” needs to spark more debate in its audience’s mind about who is right, even if on a matter on which an audience member may have wavering feelings, such as whether a public bar can have a room all the locals agree is set aside for men. The answer on the surface is ‘no.’ The bar is public. It space is open to anyone of any gender who wants to occupy it. But what about agreement and tradition? Is that always to be thrown out of the window because of equality and political correctness? There’s where you find real conflict, in those gray areas where, possibly, the “right” thing to think and do needs to be bent out of time-honored habit.

If Leah always holds the high ground, and always wins on the logic of contemporary decency, where is the play? I, for one, kept waiting for Dickey to bring it to new levels. What she offers never bored me, but it never engaged me or made me think much about the issues raised. Nothing, except the idea of tying equality to a war that was fought to assure it, was new enough to make “Row After Row” (in which “row” can be produced “roe” as in columns of soldiers or “rowl,” as in bickering) soar off the stage with any excitement or insight. At best, Leah reinforces various matters that are being bandied about in the current mid-term political elections.

Now comes the other dichotomy. For all that is doesn’t thrill or provoke deep, questioning thought, “Row After Row” is enjoyable. Director David Bradley has taken a straightforward approach to the play, providing atmosphere and a strong sense of place in the Civil War scenes, and giving reality and sincerity to the scenes in the Gettysburg bar.

He also lets a romance brew, one Dickey develops cunningly, and watching that relationship bloom might be the thread that keeps one most constantly attuned to  all that goes on in “Row After Row.”

Bradley’s excellent cast also commands one’s attention. Teri Lamm, William Zielinski, and Kevin Bergen each define her or his character with the care Cal would demand from a Gettysburg enactor. Their sincerity and authenticity, whether playing their 21st century selves or Civil War counterparts, is consistent and makes you forget you are watching actors instead of individuals going about their lives.

Lamm is staunchly no-nonsense as Leah. With her New York attitude intact, she brooks no disagreement that flies in the face of what Leah views as the truth.

Lamm’s combative approach drives Dickey’s play. This is a woman who will not budge from an opinion or pronouncement, let alone a seat she is peacefully and inobtrusively occupying while relaxing with a beer or two in a local tavern.

She will also not run from a fight. Lamm’s Leah challenges anything she thinks needs further reflection, especially from two men who live in a parochial town and who may not have been too frequently acquainted with some modern thought on certain subjects.

Lamm is bold and sudden. You never anticipate Leah planting a big smooch on Cal and telling the shocked men she did it because she thought it was the most effective way to “shut him up.” This is not her only surprise, as Lamm brings whatever liveliness there is to Bradley’s production.

William Zielinski has the ability to look slight in one part and massive in another. Maybe it’s the great gray denim coat he wears to play to a Confederate general, but Zielinski’s Cal seems like a big country bear that likes to hoist a few with friends on any occasion, who has the jokes and patter to get along with any group of men, and who reveres the traditions of Civil War enactment to the tune of spending $3,000 on a musket and $1,000 for his handsome coat.

Cal is Leah’s foil. He isn’t as backwards as he is a creature of habit. He would not have women participate in re-enactments because women were not accepted into the armies that fought the Civil War. He is not interested in the issues Leah raises. They represent political matters that are beyond his usual notice, and he doesn’t want to hear about them when he’s trying to celebrate another glorious, and well-attended, Gettysburg re-enactment.

Cal’s traditional, disinterested ways also lead in a different direction. Cal, as played by Zielinski, may be quick to argue or dismiss Leah’s points, but he is a gentleman of sorts and has an innate respect for women even if he is willing to use foul language and lose his temper at the taunting Leah.

Zielinski’s performance of Cal is constantly on the mark, but his portrayal of a Civil War general, both in the throes of leading troops and during an incident of mercy is remarkable for its depth and texture. Zielinski makes you want to see more Civil War scenes just to watch him expand his characterization of General James Longstreet, one of the finer in Lee’s chain of command during the Civil War.

Kevin Bergen makes us more curious about his character, Tom, as he makes use of Tom’s quietness and scholarly bent to bring out more facets about the high school teacher who leads a more conventional life than Leah or Cal but who understands what it means to be a minority because he is Jewish in an area of Pennsylvania where few of his landsmen reside.

Bergen’s Tom wants to be decent in contrast to Cal’s reactionary crassness. He hints to Leah at one point he doesn’t know why he remains friends with Cal and that he limits their encounters to these Civil War activities.

Tom also wants understanding. Though a teacher, and a great student of the Civil War, he does not want much more from life that to be with his wife and family, educate his students, and have a weekend now and then in which he gets to plays scenes from the conflict he knows so well.

Like Cal, Tom is a native of Gettysburg and inured to its traditions and love of Civil War lore. Unlike Cal, he is not giving to hunting or other pastimes that mid-Pennsylvanians tend to favor.

Bergen makes the most of Tom’s demure nature. Though he has a scene or two in which Tom flares up, Bergen portrays his character as a simple man with simple standards. There are crises in his life, which he discusses with Leah, saying Cal would be too obtuse or insensitive to listen to them, but Bergen keeps Tom sympathetic and more interesting by the calmness and soft-spoken nature that makes him almost a part of the tavern’s woodwork between moments when he adds his two cents to Leah and Cal’s squabbles.

Bergen is moving as the rabbi’s son who seeks sanctuary from a Gettysburg farm woman who agrees to hide him and let him avoid the fighting he abhors. Lamm is equally good as the woman who, skeptical at first, gives the deserter shelter. She also does a fine job as a girl who dresses as a boy so she can fight with the Union at Gettysburg.

“Row After Row” depends on costumes that meet Tom and Cal’s criteria for Civil War authenticity while being plausible for a barroom celebration. Marla Jurglanis, as usual, is up to that task and provides uniforms that are realistic on the battlefield and comfortable enough when jacket and vests are unbuttoned for the tavern scenes.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set is equally creative and serviceable. The room he designs for the tavern has all of the right period fixtures and furniture while looking like a lot of bars you’d find along Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway) or in the Poconos. The stone wall of the bar serves nicely as a house in the Civil War scenes. Lily Fossner’s lighting adds to the moods of sequences when Zielinski’s Longstreet is surveying a battle or Bergen’s deserter is pleading for help from Lamm’s gun-toting farmer.

Whether sounds suggest a battle in the distance or the cheap music one might hear at a bar, Christopher Colucci wove them into “Row After Row” with his expected subtlety and dexterity.

“Row After Row” runs through Sunday, November 9, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (on Route 401 just south of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $47 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org.

 

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