Monday, March 9, 2015

The Road to Appomattox (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Must say it feels a little bit like kismet, this spattering of theatre lately entwining fictional events with real history.  The Road to Appomattox by Catherine Bush enjoys its west coast premiere right now at the Colony Theatre in Burbank. By some very nice good fortune I got to see this show, which essentially comes down to an extremely nice staff at the theatre itself.  Really, very nice.  So is the building, the seats, the decor of the lobby (highlighting photos and set designs from years of shows)--even nicely priced snacks and drinks at the concession stand.

All this is intended as both praise and criticism--neither extreme, but both heartfelt.

The Road to Appomattox (according to the program) was commissioned as a play about Robert E. Lee, one of the most famous and powerful figures in American history. What playwright Bush decided to do (and I've nothing but congrats for this choice, it being near and dear to my heart) is interplay a few specific events at the end of the Civil War with the current day lives of those tracing those events, which echo in a way their lives.  What a marvelous idea!  How lovely to see enacted the relationship between past and present, history and our day to day lives.  That a character comes out and says as much is frankly indicative of what I found disappointing.

Credit: The Colony Theatre
Not horribly disappointing!  Sitting there in the really very nice theatre (honestly, I felt such envy for that space) I enjoyed myself.  The play never stopped entertaining, no small feat.  Kudos!  The dialogue sparkled at times, the story followed through on its ideas to a logical and emotionally touching conclusion.  I genuinely liked the characters.  Sometimes I wanted to slap them!  Other times they cringed on their behalf!  By the end my heart wanted the best for them.

This is all to the good, yes? Of course!

Yet I honestly feel the script itself pulls its dramatic punch in all kinds of ways.  The central characters, Jenny (Bridget Flanery) and her husband Beau (Brian Ibsen) clearly are a marriage in trouble, with the latter searching for something and the former trying to help, but both of them going in blind.  Yet in the end, when we're given the so-called reason for the trouble, all I could think was "Is that it?  Really?"  It seemed so mundane, so fixable with a good talk and a bit of hard work, a surface problem at most.  Nothing really deep there, no hint of more fundamental problems or issues or even questions.  This tiny domestic problem, pleased as I was to see it resolved because Jenny and Beau seem nice enough, just did not measure up the grandeur and scope of the Civil War.  In fact, this comparison diminished that conflict, which cost so very many lives and wrecked so much of this country, leaving scars that continue to bleed today a century and a half later.  Where was the scope?  The depth of the issues involved?  Where a comment on the human condition beyond a platitude worthy of an (above average) birthday card?

Chip (Tyler Pierce) plays the third wheel and not-quite-third-point in a not-really-triangle, a history professor who in the later part of the second act talks about what caused the Civil War.  That bit of dialogue actually felt insulting.  Not the actor's performance, which was smoothly competent throughout and often spot on in terms of comedic timing.  But when the issue of slavery, for example, was raised and dismissed in a sentence and a half, I know this is work not taking history seriously.  At all.  And as a lover of history, I did resent that.

Credit: The Colony Theatre
Structurally this came out in the plot as well.  As a writer myself, this seemed baffling.  Much was made of an old telegram Beau found among his great great grandfather's things from the Civil War, where he served as a lieutenant in the Army of Northern Virginia.  The text is in a cypher and Beau desperately hopes to find out what it was, what role his ancestor played.  Chip meets the couple, offers to find out, and we learn this telegram may prove that ancestor was a deserter directly responsible for Lee having to surrender days later due to it never having been sent.  This is all good! That Beau needs to come to terms with his hopes about the past evaporating--also, the very essence of drama and human conflict.  So why is so little made of it?

All this becomes more vivid when one considers the story of Lee and those around him, played out in and around the modern story.  Lee (Bjorn Johnson) in this version is a man somewhat at odds with my own image of him from history, but he comes across as a brilliant, surprising and deep thinker who is ever ready to act, ever firm in his goals, who bears tremendous responsibilities while refusing to become cold or heartless.  His relationship with the young Lt. Colonel Taylor (Shaun Anthony) becomes similar to that of Hamlet with Horatio, someone with whom he can share his thoughts and fears and diminishing hopes. But in many ways the climax of that part of the play comes at the very end--when faced with Grant's call for a surrender, Lee agrees but would rather "die a thousand deaths."  Then a Captain Russell (Pierce in a double role) offers another option.  Disperse the army and fight it out in guerilla tactics, raiders harassing the Union armies without letup, foraging off the land.  Lee all too clearly sees the horrifying long-term consequences of such a path.

But that awareness doesn't seem to belong in this play.  It seems too large, too important, to serve as a counterpoint to Beau and Jenny's pretty simple marriage problems.  The scale of the problems don't mesh, not because the domestic issues between two souls necessarily are tiny, but because in this case they haven't been imbued with the power of Lee's choices and options.

So what we get is an enjoyable couple of hours with a few pleasant characters saying some funny lines and settling their differences pretty quickly once they actually start talking about them.  Which is fine.  But it only plucks at the heartstrings a tiny bit, rather than piercing my heart so I cannot but walk away feeling for the story I've just glimpsed.

The Road to Appomattox runs through March 15, 2015 at The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall. For further information, call (818) 558-7000 or email the box office at

No comments: