By Whitney Hamilton
Directed by Emily Tetzlaff
The Oberon Theatre Ensemble
Producers Club
358 W. 44th St. (560-2241)
Equity showcase (closes Mar. 24)
Review by Julie Halpern

The Civil War evokes some of the most powerful images in history. From Gone With The Wind to bloody battlefield photographs, the period never ceases to enrage and fascinate. This most shameful time in our history is given further examination by young playwright Whitney Hamilton. Over 400 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. Many kept their identities secret, only to be discovered if they died or went into labor. Some found it impossible to return to their former lives and continued to live as men after the war, carrying their secrets to their graves. Hamilton offers an unflinching portrait of these young women and their loved ones, and of the fearsome risks they took to survive.

The production contains graphic violence and searing depictions of death on the battlefield. The reality of typhoid, hacked-off gangrenous limbs, and terrified teenagers screaming for their mothers actually caused some audience members to walk out of the theatre. The decimated families, murdered babies, and injured civilians were not any easier to watch. The abominable behavior and greed following the war seemed incomprehensible amid such suffering, but even family members seemed to cannibalize one another for land or other possessions. None of the physical and emotional carnage was gratuitous, however, and Oberon is to congratulated for the courage, talent, and discipline it took to bring this larger-than-life vision to the stage.

The plot follows Grace (Henry) and Louise (Will) Kieler, two young women from Charleston, from their enlistment in the Confederate army to Louise's death and Grace's decision to live as a man after the war. Grace ultimately marries a young northern widow named Virginia Klaising, who lost her husband at Antietam, where she was blinded while nursing soldiers during an attack. Although it is never quite clear until the end whether Virginia knows the truth, they form a loving bond and save Virginia's farm from being taken over by her opportunist brother-in-law and his cronies.

The acting was at a consistently high level, guided by the sensitive hand of director Emily Tetzlaff. Hamilton played Grace with gamine charm and an iron will. Laurelle Rethke's gentle, spirited Louise was heartbreaking. Caroline Duncan offered the most affecting work of the evening as the idealistic, determined Virginia and Rebecca Damon shone in the role of Virginia's two-faced sister, Jesse.

Matt Shale gave riveting portrayals of the two most despicable characters in the play, Colonel Wright, the sadistic Union officer, and Lloyd, Jesse's cruel husband. Mark McGriff brought empathy to Virginia's dying husband Oliver and a palpable hatefulness to the character of Witherspoon, Lloyd's wealthy crony. Peter Zusman, David Willis, George Sheffey, and J.R Shepard excelled in numerous smaller roles. Haunting period music composed by Gary Fitzgerald (with help from Shepard, Stephen Foster, and others) and expertly played by Shale, Sheffey and Shepard, provided an eerily beautiful backdrop for the tragic events. Randy Kurstin's fight direction and Jeremy Peterson's period-dance choreography further enhanced the reality of the production.

Kevin Joseph Roach's evanescent set, illuminated by David M. Kronick's lights, evoked the feel of period photographs. Patrick Sullivan and Brenda Manes's costumes and props were historically appropriate, and the period gowns by Alberta C. Millwood were gorgeous.

Box Score:

Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Set: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2001 Julie Halpern