Entertainment » Theatre

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Feb 3, 2015
'Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)' continues through March 1 at the A.R.T.
'Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)' continues through March 1 at the A.R.T.  (Source:Provided)

There's a sense of compression in Suzan-Lori Parks' Civil War-era play "Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3)," in part because the three parts are contained in a single two-act presentation that runs just shy of three hours.

But the play's concentration of incident, classical reference, and notion (weighty contemporary discussions of race, sexual roles and expectations, and more take place here) feels of a piece, too, with the way the work is structured. As the play begins, two characters -- slaves in the Confederate South -- are waiting for dawn to break, and discussing whether or not a popular fellow slave, Hero Benton Greene), will accept his master's (Ken Marks) offer of post-war freedom in exchange for following the master into battle. When Act III rolls around, a clutch of characters -- including maimed slave Homer (Sekou Laidlow) and a trio of runaway slaves -- are patiently awaiting sunset, and the onset of darkness, hoping to reach freedom under cover of night.

In between there's a high noon, of sorts, of conflict and combat on the fields of battle, in which distant cannons are heard and, closer to hand, the essential nature of humanity is debated between the master and a captured Union soldier (Michael Crane) who is alternately stuffed into and brought out of a cage. The controversy boils down to this: Are all men truly created equal? Or is humanity inescapably subdivided into owners and servants, masters and slaves, dominants and submissives? Just what is the nature of a man, and where in the natural order do men of various races, classes, and abilities fall? The Civil War seems a natural encouchment for such divisive questions, and for a modern re-casting of epic poetry set around a war enshrined in literature and Western history.

In "Ulysses," James Joyce conceived of the Odyssey's many adventures in terms of a single day's rambles around Dublin. Any man, even as commonplace as Joyce's hero Leopold Bloom, can have scrapes and inspirations as meaningful as those experienced by a timeless hero such as Odysseus. The very act of setting this play into a single "day" suggests equality of men, be they of any skin tone or background; If Leopold Bloom, after all, can be an urban Odysseus, why can't Hero be just as virtuous, brave, flawed, and human as any mythical figure?

It takes a while to figure out Parks' intentions, partly because there's another elision taking place in the play's opening act, where it seems Hero is going to be a version not of Odysseus, but of Achilles. Will he fight, or won't he? Hero's adoptive father figure (Harold Surratt) suggests that Hero's mother must have been a figure of divinity, and the mind flashes to Achilles' own immortal mother, Thetis. Hero's subsequent choices and adventures reflect the travels of Odysseus, but the presence of Homer -- not blind, in this case, but hobbled -- indicates that this switch is conscious, one more act of admixture and narrative layering on Parks' part, the poet Homer having been the source for both "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." By the time we meet Penny (Jenny Jules), however, Hero's common-law wife, the issue has been decided: This Hero is going to war, and he's going to have a long journey when it comes time to make his way home.

All this subtext is marvelous stuff for anyone with a classically liberal education, but familiarity with Ancient Greek literature is not a necessity. Parks charges up the play with fluid, poetic dialogue that's whimsical and elevated by turns, with anachronistic flashes here and there. (The blocking, by director Jo Bonney one supposes, is often formal, even downright stagey at times, in keeping with Parks' style.) Each of the three sections -- subtitled "A Measure of A Man," "A Battle in the Wilderness," and "The Union of My Confederate Parts" -- features gradually revealed histories, inexorably surfacing personal characteristics (some of them noble, some much less so), and big twist surprises. But the three parts also maintain three distinct tones, from the naturalism of part one to the rhetorical brio of part two and, finally, the elements of magical realism in part three, when it's a dog, not a human being, who recounts some crucial offstage history (Jacob Ming-Trent played the dog when I saw the show, and she stole the show; Patrena Murray is slated to assume the role as of Feb. 6).

Fittingly (for Homer is thought to have sung his epic poetry) there is musical accompaniment written and performed by Steven Bargonetti. This isn't a musical, and Bargnetti strums and sings just a few songs, but they are well placed and bring an extra dimension to this already richly executed piece. The lighting by Lap Chi Chu underscores the play's complex rhythms, and enhances the feeling of locale, as does Neil Patel's scenic design, which features a freestanding structure in parts 1 and 3, and a evokes a woodland in part 2. Costumer Esosa takes a cue from Park's dialogue and mixes period-specific clothing with contemporary -- and yet, one feels, culturally-related -- attire.

If there is a national conversation happening around issues of race, personal dignity, and human values versus monetary privilege, then what Parks has given us here is a brightly vital, sometimes acerbic poem constructed of the arguments and absurdities in which both sides of the debate get caught up. Plays of this much intensity and focus demand total attention, and reward one with kaleidoscopic satisfaction; the more you reflect on what you've seen and heard, the more you find meanings, jokes, and intriguing connections.

My one regret as a reviewer was the presence of three loud, chatty young women sitting a row behind me, commenting and gossiping on the play's unfolding astonishments. At least I did not find it necessary to lash myself to a mast to prevent a personal confrontation with these particular sirens (though a gentleman in the row ahead of me, whose frequent exasperated glances back at the three young women, looked like he might well have benefitted from the relaxing effects of a lotus blossom or two). Still, their thoughtlessness did cause me to miss a few lines of dialogue here and there, which I keenly regretted. This play deserves a more respectful audience, for all that it refuses to be stifled or stilted by the way a politically correct culture too often deals with issues around race, gender, and sexuality.

"Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3)" continues at the American Repertory Theater's Loeb Drama Center at 64 Brattle Street in Cambridge, near Harvard Square, through March 1. For tickets and more information, please visit http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/father-comes-home-wars-parts-1-2-3

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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