A war approaching its bloody end and a marriage quite possibly nearing its own death throes come together Catherine Bush’s enlightening, entertaining new dramedy The Road To Appomattox, now getting its West Coast Premiere at Burbank’s Colony Theatre.
Bush’s two-acter takes us back to the final days of The War Between The States as General Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Richmond to Appomattox draws him closer and closer to the courthouse where he will surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending what remains to this day the deadliest war in United States history.
Playwright Bush’s stroke of inspiration is to tell her story on two parallel tracks, one set during the first week of April, 1865, the other exactly 150 years later.
Alternating between scenes of Lee (Bjørn Johnson), his young aide-de-camp Colonel Walter Taylor (Shaun Anthony), and Confederate soldier Captain Russell (Tyler Pierce) making last-ditch efforts at an unlikely victory and a 30something married couple (Brian Ibsen and Bridget Flanery as Steve and Jenny Weeks) stopping for photo ops at commemorative road markers along the very path followed by Lee and his soldiers, The Road To Appomattox contrasts the fate of a nation divided with that of a marriage in crisis, and in so doing asks the question, will Steve and Jenny too be forced to admit defeat?
If this sounds more than a tad History Channel-meets-Lifetime Television For Women, Bush’s smart script, Brian Shnipper’s brisk direction, and five talented actors insure that the road Gray’s characters are following is an engaging one, and if the play’s factual elements end up propelling you to google Lee, Grant, and Appomattox, then so much the better.
1865 scenes have just the right “You Are There” quality, while those in the present day stir just enough lightness into the mix to provide smiles and a few chuckles along the way, Steve’s seemingly futile insistence upon being called “Beau” being just one laugh-getter. (It turns out that the recent discovery of an authentic Confederate army cap and man-purse—sorry haversack—belonging to his great, great-grandfather provides both the inspiration for Steve and Jenny’s trek and Mr. Stephen Beauregard Weeks’ brand new choice of moniker.)
The Weeks’ marital troubles and accompanying dialog can indeed come off rather “Lifetime” at times, at least compared with the life-and-death struggles of Lee and his men, but the cast assembled at the Colony is an all-around fine one.
Ibsen and Flanery have just the right all-American couple-next-door appeal to keep the audience rooting for their marriage to survive even when “Beau” is at his most distant and Robert E. Lee-obsessed, even when Jenny seems to be falling under the spell of the sexy bearded stranger who, it turns out, is the Civil War expert her husband has come in search of, a role brought to life by the dynamic Pierce, who doubles terrifically as Captain Russell, repeated quick changes and all. Johnson gives General Lee the dignity, manners, and valor that has made Robert E. a Confederate legend.
Scenic designer David Potts’ woodsy set (featuring some exquisite scenic art by Orlando de la Paz) is quite gorgeously lit by Jared A. Sayeg. Costume designer Dianne K. Graebner gets top marks for both the 21st-century characters’ contemporary garb and the soldiers’ authentic looking uniforms, authenticity kudos shared with sound designer Dave Mickey for some very real battle noise and with John M. McElveney for his properties design and set dressing. (Robert E. Lee’s desk and folding chair are especially fine.)
Leesa Freed is production stage manager. Robert T. Kyle is technical director, Rhonda O’Neal wig designer, and Nike Doukas dialect coach.
You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to enjoy the latest from Barbara Beckley’s Colony, and it probably won’t turn you into one if you aren’t already. Still, if you are anything like this reviewer, you’ll not only learn quite a bit about those final days of Lee’s retreat, you’ll have and enjoyable time along The Road To Appomattox.
Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.
February 19, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont