The Road to Appomattox, enjoying its west coast premiere at the Colony Theatre, is flat out brilliant.
If you have even a passing interest in the Civil War, go and see a magnificent General Robert E. Lee facing the final days of the Civil War in April 1865.
If you appreciate more intimate conflicts, go and see a modern-day married couple face their growing disunion as they too follow the road to Appomattox.
Playwright CATHERINE BUSH has woven together past and present so strongly that her play can bear the weight of war, and so tightly that it can hold the small moments of individual grief.
Director BRIAN SHNIPPER and his superb cast make both stories, past and present, compelling. Having the modern-day characters appear on stage before the Civil War-era characters completely exit is also a nice touch, a bow to the sense of presence that many have felt while visiting Civil War sites.
You’ll know something very special is afoot as soon as you see the set: a sweeping, glowing sky behind a forest that, as the occasion requires, can also suggest rustic interiors. Later on, you’ll see the flashes and hear the thunder of battle—theater of war indeed! No detail is overlooked. General Lee’s field desk faithfully reflects the original design, scaled to sit comfortably on the stage. Kudos to DAVID POTTS (Scenic Design,) ORLANDO de la PAZ (Scenic Art,) JARED A. SAYEG (Lighting Design,) DAVE MICKEY (Sound Design) and JOHN M. McELVENEY (Properties Design and Set Dressing.)
April 1865. In the days leading to the surrender at Appomattox, General Lee (BJORN JOHNSON) still thought he and his subordinate generals could outrace the Union forces, regroup in western Virginia, and make their stand. It wouldn’t be the first time General Lee prevailed over long odds. Yet, as Catherine reminds us in her program notes, General Lee had been opposed to secession. But when “the politicians in Richmond voted to leave the Union, Lee found himself in a horrible predicament; he could either betray his country or take up arms against his home.”
April lived up to its poetic reputation as “the cruelest month.” General Lee had to order the evacuation of Richmond, but panic had already occupied Virginia’s capital ahead of Union forces. The city erupted in flames, looting and chaos. General Lee’s wife was still there, as was the fiancée of his loyal aide-de-camp, Colonel Walter Taylor (SHAUN ANTHONY.) General Lee would not leave the field but did allow Colonel Taylor a brief absence to marry his fiancée, one of many reasons why he inspired intense loyalty and love among his soldiers.
BJORN JOHNSON gives us an exceptional portrayal of a man whose legendary ability to maintain grace under pressure was strained to the breaking point. SHAUN ANTHONY gives us a noble soldier whose devotion to General Lee was palpable, and who feared for others, not himself.
Present-day. Dr. Jenny Weeks (BRIDGET FLANERY) knows a thing or two about disorder in an academic sense, being an expert in thermodynamics and it’s infamous Second Law. Understood metaphorically, the Second Law says that there are many, many more ways a thing can go wrong than right.
Jenny confronts a less scientific kind of disorder, the kind that upends a life. For the past two years her husband Steve (BRIAN IBSEN) had been the breadwinner while she earned her PhD. But a grave personal disappointment had made Steve emotionally withdrawn, and they had both avoided discussing why. Then Steve became obsessed with the Civil War, ever since he found the officer’s cap, haversack and mysterious message belonging to his great-great grandfather, Beauregard Weeks, who had been a lieutenant in the Confederacy. Now Steve even wants to be addressed as “Beau” in honor of his hopefully illustrious ancestor.
Jenny’s allowed Steve to drag her to monument marker after marker along the Appomattox Trail, even though she hates history. She’d much rather be at a professional conference back home than enduring some lecture concerning a bygone era.
Steve is becoming increasingly overbearing and obsessed with his ancestor’s past, and Jenny’s becoming tempted by the dashing, PhD-level Civil War expert, Chip (TYLER PIERCE.) Even as jealousy rises up within Steve, he anxiously hopes that Chip may be the bearer of good news concerning his ancestor Beauregard Weeks.
April 1865. TYLER PIERCE also portrays Captain Russell, a messenger of a grimmer sort. It is one thing for history professor Chip to dispassionately dissect the closing events of the Civil War. It’s another for a Confederacy captain in the heat of battle to tell General Lee of Union troops rampaging through the countryside and Confederacy soldiers dying by the thousands.
General Lee was confronting one dismaying reversal after another. If it wasn’t Mother Nature flooding out bridges, it was the failure of someone down the line to carry out critical orders. All this, as starvation and slaughter stalked his soldiers. The disorder of molecules and men was the seventh character of the play, and it covered canvasses large and small.
Civil War soldiers spoke about “knowing the elephant” as their way of describing the many and varied horrific consequences the Civil War forced them to experience. The Road to Appomattox gives us a glimpse of the “elephant” in its final days when General Lee chose to confront it head on…even as a husband and wife some 150 years later must decide what to do about their own rampaging elephant.
A play of this caliber stays with you afterwards, and indeed many in the audience remained in the theater last Saturday for a Q&A with the cast and crew. TYLER PIERCE explained to a questioner that he was able to swiftly slip into character (from present day history professor Chip to Captain Russell and vice versa) thanks in part to being able to slip into a very authentic Confederate uniform. Kudos to DIANNE K. GRAEBNER (Costume Design.)
A member of the audience believed that had Lee fought for the Union, the Civil War would have ended within four months, not four long years. General Lee’s love of home and military genius arguably made the Civil War of the most destructive wars to befall his home and nation, making him a figure worthy of Greek tragedy.
General Lee had known how the South had tried to extend slavery to the new territories out west, an issue that preoccupied the nation in the decades leading up to the Civil War. But the South did not get bigger. Or better. Had it existed 2,500 years ago, when slavery was the accepted norm, it would have been hailed alongside of Athens. But the 19th century was in the midst of a revolution that would eventually extend participation in government well beyond an oligarchy. By the eve of the Civil War, the South was sterile. It could stubbornly cling to existence, but never reproduce itself.
But perhaps General Lee’s virtues did allow him to triumph in the end. Spoiler alert: General Lee chose to surrender rather than authorize prolonged guerilla warfare, which would have greatly compounded the evils of the Civil War and perhaps, been the suicide of the South. End alert.
There is a second, ironic sense in which Lee triumphed. By making the war as long and terrible as it was, he unwittingly impelled Union soldiers and citizens to seek for a cause that could redeem their terrible sacrifice. That cause, as dramatized by Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln, was the ending of slavery once and for all, by constitutional amendment. Even at that, it was tough sledding for President Lincoln to pull it off. It may have been well nigh impossible for President Lincoln if the Civil War had been short.
There are many more ways a thing can go wrong than right, but we can be grateful that things did not go more wrong as they could have.
Note: I could arguably have used the more neutral term “War Between the States,” avoiding both “Civil War” and “War of Northern Aggression.” But in light of the play, “Civil War” is the better term. For many, the label simply connotes the tragedy of brother against brother, father against son, family against family. Sadly, “civil war” is often an apt metaphor for the spousal dissolutions of our time, when union is a lost cause more often then not.
The Road to Appomattox continues through Sunday, March 15 at The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St. (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $49, with group discounts available. Call the Colony Theatre Box office at 818-558-7000 ext. 15 or visit www.ColonyTheatre.org.