Theater Project production focuses on Civil War

February 26, 1993|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing Writer

Historian Bruce Catton called the Civil War "probably the most significant single experience in our national existence," a tragedy that "did more to shape our future than any other event."

He'll get no argument from me. Meaningful contemplation of the war is an inescapable rite of passage for any American.

It is with genuine enthusiasm, then, that I commend the Annapolis Theater Project for devoting its winter production to the voices and songs of America's most calamitous conflict.

In the plain, simple setting of the Severn Town room at Maryland Hall, two extended sequences are presented in a reader's theater format.

The first, "Patriots All!" is taken from letters, diaries, memoirs and songs of the period which focus primarily on the poignant observations made by women during the war. "Sharpshooters" tells the story of the 1st and 2nd Regiments of U.S. Sharpshooters, who distinguished themselves in battle under -- or perhaps in spite of -- their commander Hiram Berdan.

L Their words and emotions read like a history of the tragedy.

On balance, "Patriots All!" is the more affecting of the two pieces. From the moment Dianne Hood commences her monologue as a breathless Southern belle stunningly clueless as to what would happen once the first palmy days of secession were over, it's clear that special things are about to happen.

Carol Cohen is particularly haunting as Mary Chestnut, the Southern aristocrat whose extraordinary diary reads like a history of the doomed confederacy. Her account of the pathetic wife beseeching clemency from Confederate President Jefferson Davis for her AWOL husband is searing.

Duncan Hood is on hand to punctuate the readings with songs. With his guitar, he leads the cast in such peppy war songs as "Lincoln and Liberty" and "Goober Peas," and in ballads like "Lorena" and the haunting "Shiloh."

Though Irene Knudson sings quite well, the overall vocal talent is somewhat variable. And a gifted black singer-actress could have lent more credence to the Mary Dines sequence and to "Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen."

"Sharpshooters" pales a bit by comparison for it is a blow-by-blow account of a not always interesting corner of the war. The ennobling prose of "Patriots All!" gives way to a hatchet job on Colonel Hiram Berdan, the founder of the Sharpshooter Regiment who is made out to be nothing more than a cowardly egotist.

Alas, the readings frequently lose impetus, especially in the endless preparations for war detailed in Scene III.

Still, there is much to admire, especially the account of the sad death of Colonel Trepp, the Swiss soldier who served so selflessly as Berdan's second-in-command. The moving poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Albee and others adds a great deal when read briskly but sensitively by Amanda Carrett.

"The dark, indefinite shore is still ahead of us," wrote Professor Catton. "Maybe we will get there someday if we live up to what the great men of our past won for us."

Performances are today and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Admission is $8, seating is limited, reservations are suggested. Call 268-6104

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