Beaten by Tactical Errors: “The Road to Appomattox”

The Colony Theatre is the kind of the mid-sized house (just under 300 seats) LA desperately needs.  It’s a place you can mount a play on a modest budget and make enough to pay everyone — maybe even qualify for grants.  The missing stepping stone between our hundreds of small theatres and our one or two dozen large ones.

For 25 years, the Colony was one of the small ones, a 99-seater in the Chavez Ravine neighborhood.  Its artists, willing to work for love, became known for risk-taking and quality. Then, in 2000, the city of Burbank offered them a lavish new home.

They still look for quality and take risks. Though they also now do classics, musicals and cabarets, they stage new works every year.  The Road to Appomattox is one, a five-year-old play making its first West Coast appearance.

Briget Flanery, Bjorn Johnson

Briget Flanery, Bjorn Johnson

Playwright Catherine Bush has a bold idea: to interweave the last days of the Civil War with the last days of a modern marital conflict.  As Gen. Robert E. Lee flees encircling Union armies, a couple follows his path from one historical marker to the next.

Like the rural South challenging the industrial north, Bush may have over-reached.  Her strategy– like Lee’s — is daring, dangerous and might even succeed.  It doesn’t in this production, because — like the officer in the story who fails to deliver Lee’s telegram — director Brian Shnipper makes tactical decisions that destroy it.

If we can be made to  feel intensely what’s at stake for Steve and Jenny, and what their arguments are doing to them, we may believe their conflict has the magnitude and gravity of a war.  And if we can be made to feel Lee’s plight as a human one, we may accept his struggle as comparable on that level to theirs.

The actors work hard to bring us into their characters.  Especially strong are Bjørn Johnson, as Lee, and Tyler Pierce, as both a Confederate officer and the intrusive historian who joins the couple’s tour.

But whenever matters get tense — which (to playwright Bush’s credit) is almost always — the characters turn and face each other.  This leaves most of us in the audience looking at one character’s back, while he or she blocks the other from view.  We’re pushed out of the story like unwelcome guests, or children being sent to bed.

This lack of connection is fatal.  We’re alone with Lee enough that we begin to feel the horror of his situation, and the decisions he must make.  But because the couple’s marriage takes place in duets, from which we are excluded, we don’t feel or understand its nature or its peril. We’re told about it, like children after a divorce.

As a result, what Steve and Jenny are going through feels trivial — embarrassingly so, alongside cities being ravaged to rubble, soldiers dying by the thousands, and Lee having to decide whether to risk more starvation, more deaths.

The Colony team gives the play a fine physical production.  David Potts creates a stark, cleverly versatile set (though this is the third time he’s filled the space with naked verticals).  Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting and Dave Mickey’s sound nicely suggest the disruptive cacophony of war, and Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes are accurate to both periods (and suggest the modern characters nicely).

The Road to Appomattox is a good enough script that it deserves more productions, hopefully as well-staged as The Colony’s.  But it also needs productions in which we, the audience, are allowed to see and feel fully what the characters are undergoing.
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The Road to Appomattox, by Catherine Bush, directed by Brian Shnipper. Presented by The Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm; Saturday at 3:00 pm,
Sunday at 2:00 pm., through March 15.

Tickets: <www.colonytheatre.org> or (818) 558-7000 ext. 15.