Blast From the Past
John Brown's Body isn't exactly a play; it doesn't have one absorbing plot line. Instead, it's an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét's famous 1928 epic poem about the Civil War, and, like all epics, it's a kind of episodic tapestry. There's chanting and singing. Actors are sometimes specific characters, and sometimes they serve -- singly or in groups -- as narrators. Some incidents represent self-contained vignettes, while others involve the unfolding of a particular character's story. The famous -- John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, General Robert E. Lee -- make their appearances, and they mingle with fictional people. Obviously, no one character is examined in detail. Although some of the people we see are interesting or eccentric, the characters are more often simply sketched in. They represent a group, type or region -- the steely, charming, plantation mistress, the slave couple yearning for freedom for themselves and their children, the slave who identifies with his masters, the ignorant young soldier. What is explored in some depth is the war itself.
Naturally, given the importance of its subject matter, John Brown's Body raises many issues -- first among them the unadulterated evils of slavery. The play begins as a slave ship crosses the ocean and the captain remarks that it's important for the slaves to get some air because "they keep better that way." One of the crew bends to examine a prone body and remarks, "This woman's asleep, but her baby's dead." There's also the decisive effect one strong-willed person can have on history: John Brown, with his sudden vicious but principled attack at Harper's Ferry; the bone-weary Lincoln, who, lacking our hindsight, was unaware as the war dragged itself along like a torn and broken snake that he would be the victor; the stony Robert E. Lee and the man who's mentioned only once but whose ghost haunts the proceedings, the rebel slave Nat Turner.
Other resonant themes: the unadulterated horror of war, with its mangled soldiers and myriad innocent victims; the transcendent power of love; the meaning of nationhood; the way in which the war forcibly yoked together two disparate lands and cultures -- with ramifications that are still unfolding in our body politic. We understand from this text how subtle, murky and ultimately incomprehensible history is, given the unreliability of memory and the frustration of trying to understand the past by scanning its leavings. We like to classify historic figures as heroes or villains, but the men of the Civil War are harder to fathom. Lincoln wanted to free the slaves, but according to a speech he gives here, he was even more concerned with keeping the Union together.
So how does all this work as a theatrical event? Pretty well, for the most part. To begin with, the cast is stunning. From the moment he stepped on stage, I realized how much we'd been missing Jamie Horton during his absence this season. What a stunningly authoritative John Brown he is -- rock-hard, unreasoning, narrow, immovable, plainspoken. You can see how a man like this sets huge events in motion through his very inability to entertain contradiction and his unshakeable sense of his own rightness. Mark Rubald fights on both sides of the war as young Jack Ellyat and the romantic Southern brooder Clay Wingate, and he's terrific in both roles. He is particularly impressive in a scene where Ellyat and his fellow soldiers wait for an attack, torn between terror and boredom, growing visibly more agitated as the opposing army comes closer. Finally, he's shooting; he's wounded; he's up and flailing with his bayonet; he's down. Fighting with invisible enemies is tricky work for an actor; if it's not done with absolute conviction, it can be funny, but Rubald takes you with him every step of the way. Jacqueline Antaramian plays two parallel roles: Wingate's highborn plantation amour and Ellyat's innocent young love. She's fine in the first role and absolutely disarming in the second. Her words, the song of longing she sings for him, could be pure sap if she didn't bring such warmth and sweet sensuality to the role. John Hutton is a surprisingly human and vulnerable Lincoln. Bill Christ is strong, as always, in several parts. I particularly liked his tiny turn as General McDowell, but he also plays a sometimes kindly, sometimes ignorantly cruel and always feisty Irishman with relish. Keith L. Hatten gives depth and humor to everything he does. You don't know whether to laugh or cry when he says he's "proud of my white folk. Proud of it all." Mike Hartman is convincing in all his roles, and there's fine work from Annette Helde, Robin Moseley, Johanna Jackson and the ineffable Randy Moore.
Larry Delinger's multifaceted music plays a huge role in the evening's success, lending color and depth, and the cast sings well, both separately and in chorus. Allison Watrous and Kathleen White have particularly beautiful voices.
Benét's language is always expressive and sometimes splendid, particularly when the subject is battle.
John Brown's Body also manifests the weakness inherent in this kind of production, which remains at base a recitation. Some of the devices -- like the flat, papery corpses and the occasional use of a microphone -- don't work. Nor do the strange heads that represent entire horses (except in one scene, where they were meant to be funny). Some of the exposition gets boring. But all of this is offset by the intensity of the material, the skill of director-adaptor Laird Williamson and the brilliance of his cast.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.