Theatre Banshee commemorates the sesquicentennial of end of the bloodiest war in our nation’s history in their tenth-anniversary revival of Mine Eyes Hath Seen, Sean Branney and Leslie Baldwin’s theatrical montage of Civil War tales told “in their own words,” and powerfully so, under Branney’s imaginative direction.
The alternating voices of a cast of seven* take us back to 1860 and thirty-four “United States” divided over issues both moral and economic, a nation that supported the struggle for liberty abroad … but not at home, where three million human beings lived their lives as slaves.
We hear a Southern gentleman proudly declare his admiration for the “intelligent slave owner, best friend of the Negro,” and for the “genuine affection” between white and black, whose lot “has been ordained by God.”
We listen to another man declare himself opposed to blacks becoming voters or jurors or marrying outside their race while still expressing a hope for harmony despite “fundamental differences” between “superior” and “inferior,” then discover to our surprise whose words these are.
We learn of the initial certainty that the war would be brief, “perhaps three months long,” a naïve optimism followed by four years of bloody combat.
We are instructed in how best to prepare the Civil War staple “hardtack,” a type of cracker made from flour, water, and salt, said to be imperishable. (Hint: Do not mix with coffee or attempt to fry.)
There is humor along the way. Lice are said to be so common that solders even race them. Possum may be “nasty,” but in this time of shortage, some actually crave themselves some possum stew. A soldier gets shot five times and not only survives, he turns it into an anecdote.
We hear from a Southern woman left at home (It is not only “almost more than I can bear” … but the slaves are “no help at all.”) and from a Northern woman expressing shock and pity at seeing a Southern regiment marched through town.
A pair of particularly dramatic sequences take us into battle in distinctly different ways. A full cast’s alternating voices describe the sounds of battle great and small, immediately followed by four simultaneous descriptions of battles themselves, each tale drowning the others out.
As the war rages on and on and on, we hear about the jubilation of attacking while winning vs. the horrors felt when losing. We listen to a letter from a wife to her Confederate soldier husband begging for him to “Come home,” a missive retrieved by a Union solder from her dead husband’s body. We learn of soldiers pinning their names onto the backs of their jackets to insure that their bodies will be identified.
Some of the voices we hear are names we recognize: Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln (including a deeply moving Gettysburg Address), Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and (this one I did have to look up) Sam Watkins, known for the memoir he wrote of life as a Confederate soldier. Other voices are lesser known or even anonymous.
On paper these writings would make for compelling reading. Brought to life onstage by seven superb actors (Kendra Chell*, Lucas Dixon, Andrew Leman, Logan Loughmiller, Grinnell Morris, Kem Saunders, and Kevin Stidham) and staged with visual flair by director Branney, who also narrates, they make for a uniquely fascinating evening of theater.
Some may carp that “it’s not a play,” and indeed the epistolary format by its very nature can prove less compelling than when actors interact with other actors in conversational mode.
Still, Branney makes sure that no matter who is speaking, his or her fellow cast members are listening and reacting, sometimes gravely, sometimes with laughter, and by keeping cast configurations varied (with the aid of lighting design whiz Bosco Flanagan), Branney keeps Mine Eyes Hath Seen from every becoming static or one-dimensional.
It helps that spoken reminiscences are interspersed with full-cast harmonizing (under Stuart Ambrose’s expert musical direction) to “Bonnie Blue Flag,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Dixie,” and “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” Leman and Lucas have a standout duet, and all are accompanied by musicians Mary Ann and Walter Sereth on banjo and drum.
Arthur MacBride’s colorful scenic design backs the battlefield staging area with assorted Civil War-era flags and posters. Kimberly Overton’s costumes are as authentic-looking as any Civil War buff could hope for.
Mine Eyes Hath Seen is produced by Baldwin and Branney. Leman is associate producer. Matt Sandlin is stage manager and Caroline Morgan assistant stage manager. Aidan Branney is lighting assistant.
With Gone With The Wind (both novel and movie) remaining a perennial favorite, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln having reawakened interest in the American Civil War just three years back, and sesquicentennial events taking place across the nation even as I write this review, the time could not be riper for Mine Eyes Hath Seen’s return to Theatre Banshee.
It is a production quite unlike any other now playing around town.
*Ailing cast member Barry Lynch’s words were shared by his fellow cast members at the performance reviewed. Chell alternates with Sarah van der Pol, pictured in production stills.)
The Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia, Burbank.
April 3, 2105
Photos: Eugene Mehlman