A Post-Civil War Puzzle Play in the Hills of Tennessee

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Ensemble Studio Theater
549 W. 52d Street
New York, N.Y.

It is 1870 in the backwoods of North Carolina, just five years after the last battle of the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began.  A farmer has returned home from a day of work on his land with his son to his loving wife, who is cuddling their baby.  He owns his house and his land, he tells his family, wiping sweat from his brow, and he is a happy man.

Then, suddenly, an elderly woman appears on the farm and announces that she has just walked there from Tennessee, seven miles away.  Her arrival throws the family into a quandary and begins a deep puzzle.  Who is this woman, where has she been and what does she want?

 Tennessee, that opened last week, is one of the ten plays in the 33rd annual one act play marathon at the Ensemble Studio Theater.  The play, by Romulus Linney, one of the country’s great writers, who died in January, was first staged in 1980.  It is being brought back as a tribute to him.

The oddity of Tennessee is that it is a Civil War era play that has nothing to do with the conflict.  The farmer, Herschel, fought for the Confederacy in the war and has forgotten the conflict and moved on.  His wife Mary never discusses the war and neither does his teenaged son Cardell.

All they talk about is the cranky, talkative old woman who arrived out of the North Carolina wilderness at their porch, that they constantly remind the stranger is eighty, not seven, miles from Tennessee.

The drama has a strange ending, a cast that seems suspended form the story for a long time and an out of place feel to it, but it is a delightful night in the theater.  It is more of a Twilight Zone television episode than a play, with many bizarre twists and turns but, when the entire plot finally plays out, makes a lot of sense.

The play really soars when the old woman arrives.  She holds the family, and the audience, spellbound as she tells her life story, with all of its colorful chapters.  She lived on the farm as a girl but left with a man, Griswald Plankman who promised to take her to Tennessee, a place where she dreamed of living.  The couple lived there for about sixty years, ran a farm and raised several children.  They survived severe winters, hot summers and a war.  The old woman, played marvelously by Kristin Lowman, adds in layers and layers of memory and emotion to the story, taking the audience back in time with her as witnesses to her hopes and dreams, her love and hate for her husband and her disorientation when he dies.

The one act play is a wonderful look back into history and the lives of the frontier farmers who developed the country in the middle of the nineteenth century.  It is a story of family unit, brutal farmwork, small dreams and large memories.  Even though it is sometimes hard to follow, Tennessee is a loving tale, full of hope.

There are two problems with the story, overall a delightful drama.  First, it should give you more of an historical look at the era.  What was the Civil War like for Herschel, who fought in it, and for his wife and son, bystanders who might have lost a loved one?  How did the war affect the backwoods people of North Carolina and Tennessee, Confederate states in the conflict?  How did they face Reconstruction and the freedom of slaves?  Even a few minutes of dialogue on local history would have helped.

The second problem is the end of the play.  You are not sure how the story will end because there are several possible outcomes.  It is not resolved with any of them, however, and you feel robbed.

Tennessee is the only real history play in the marathon, but is a sturdy anchor for the others.  On the day that I went, I caught a stunning short one-act play, Bike Wreck, about a bike messenger and delivery boy in New York who resorts to violence.  It was a dramatic tour de force and added to the enjoyment of watching Linney’s 1870 drama.

I have attended the Marathon for several years now and enjoy it immensely.  Not only do you see fine plays about history, but the nine or ten short, one-act plays that are showcased offer wonderful snippets of drama.  The Marathon, and others like it, is a wonderful excursions for theatergoers.

The play was well directed by Harris Yulin.  He received fine performances from Rufus Collins (Herschel), Julie Fitzpatrick (his wife Mary), Eamon Foley (Cardell), Helen Coxe (a neighbor), and from the gifted Kristen Lowman as the old woman.

PRODUCTION: The Marathon is produced by the Ensemble Studio Theater, William Carden, artistic director. Costumes: Rachel Dozier-Ezell, Sound: Christ Barlow, Sets: Jason Simms, Lighting: Geoffrey Dunbar.

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