Still Fighting the Battle of GettysburgCulture 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. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
Row after Row
131 W. 55th Street
New York, N.Y.
Cal and Tom are two of the thousands of Civil War re-enactors from coast to coast who leave their 2014 lives on weekends to stage the War Between the States over and over again. After they finish the battle at Gettysburg, that many saw was the deciding conflict of the Civil War, they retreat, unbloodied, to their favorite Gettysburg tavern where they prepare to sit down at their favorite table.
But a girl is there, and a girl re-enactor no less. Cal is appalled. He screams at her, belittles her, accuses her of wearing an improper uniform and of pretending that she is a man. She snickers back that he and all men are losing their monopoly on power after hundreds of years and resent it. Bickering follows.
They are two fake soldiers in Row after Row, a very real and charming play about the Civil War and its contemporary re-enactor regiments written by Jessica Dickey.
Ms. Dickey, who grew up near Gettysburg and was a re enactor herself, has devised a clever concept in having the three re-enactors squabble at the tavern. From time to time, they travel back in history to play the real soldiers, and a general whom they are portraying at Gettysburg. The lighting is lowered, and music turned serious. The scenes work. In this manner, Ms. Dickey has her players tell us about the actual battle of Gettysburg at the same time the contemporary re-enactors talk about their real lives.
Cal, the hotheaded, abrasive General Longstreet re-enactor, quickly loses his tough guy veneer when challenged by the girl, Leah. She opens up to both men and says that she moved to Gettysburg and fled New York because of a crime. Tom admits that although he is a bored and unhappy teacher, he cannot bring himself to join a strike in his school district. Cal is grappling with a bad end to his recent love affair. Off the battlefield, they are as vulnerable as the rest of us.
There is some effort to show that women would have been as brave as the men at Gettysburg, and a story about a woman spirit who visited troops and kissed them for good luck on nights before the murderous slaughter on the battlefield, but not much.
The strength of the play is the drama, and a lot of comedy, between the three actors. They are as much in conflict with themselves as the Union and Confederacy were in early July of 1863.
Director Daniella Topol does a fine job of getting strong acting from Rosie Benton as Leah, Erik Lochtefeld as Tom and the energetic and demonstrative P.J. Sosko as Cal. Set designer Clint Ramos devised a tavern room that is surrounded by hundreds of pieces of chopped firewood to symbolize a number of things
Row after Row enables Civil War enthusiasts, history buffs and even people who do not know much about the conflict to learn a great deal. We learn a little about the soldiers on both sides, General Longstreet, Pickett’s charge and how gallant the boys on both sides were, especially the southerners, taking part in a suicidal attack up a steep slope on the third and final day of the encounter.
On the negative side, Ms. Dickey could have done more with the war and the battle. The play only runs about 80 minutes, and another ten minutes of background and information would have really enriched the theatrical experience. What was General Lee like? Union commander George Meade? How did the battle start and what happened on the first two days? How important was the engagement in the overall scheme of the Civil War? Just ten minutes of added conversation, part of the dialogue, would have enriched the play considerably.
The real significance of the play is that we learn more about why ordinary men and women devote so much time (and money) for uniforms, weapons and supplies, plus food and hotels, to re- enacting the past, to embrace the charm of history. This life is a parallel universe for them and they put in a considerable amount of very hard work to not only refight the war, but become experts on the battles and movement of the conflict. All of them have given us back a chapter of our history, and with gusto. The play tells us why they do it and how and the enjoyment they get out of it.
Row after Row has its small disappointments, but, overall, it is the second battle of Gettysburg, and in this one, everybody wins.
PRODUCTION: Produced by New York City Center and the Women’s Project Theater. Sets and Costumes: Clint Ramos, Lighting: Tyler Micoleau, Sound: Broken Chord, Fight Choreography: J. David Brimmer. The play is directed by Daniella Topol. Runs through February 16.
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