Although Winding Road Theater Ensemble is a relatively new group among an impressive array of homegrown theaters, its founding directors and artistic leadership have considerable experience in the field. One critical aspect of the theater's mission is to produce new plays, an honorable though risky business.
Last week WRTE opened a brand-new play, Row After Row, by Jessica Dickey. Director Glen Coffman, in his remarks to the opening night audience, said that they had "discovered" the play last summer, when it was only 30 pages long. But the group thought the play had promise, contacted the playwright and asked if she was interested in developing it into a longer piece. She said that she was and agreed to work to that end. So WRTE now has produced the world premiere of Dickey's play.
It's an intriguing little piece that begins with an interesting concept and captures a moment that resonates in a quietly emotional way.
It centers on the exchange between two men and a woman who have participated in the annual re-enactment of the third day of the bloody battle of Gettysburg, a dark and defining moment in the War Between the States. Two men, Cal (Michael Gifford) and Tom (Steve Wood), dressed in their historical regalia, go to a bar to have a beer to celebrate the day. This tradition seems to be almost as important as the re-enactment itself, and it includes sitting at a certain table. But this time when they enter the bar, "their" table is occupied by a woman, Leah (Emilee Foster), who is also dressed as a re-enactor. Other tables are available, but Cal is determined that this part of the tradition remain intact and he bullies his way, much to Tom's chagrin, into persuading the woman to allow them to sit down—although she remains at the table as well, not quite what Cal had in mind.
We dislike Cal almost immediately. He is officious and overbearing, qualities suitable, perhaps, for Confederate Gen. Longstreet, whom he plays in the re-enactment, but traits that are out of place here. Tom, in a Union uniform, is much more congenial, and attempts to blunt Cal's hostility, which includes an assertion that re-enactors strive for historical accuracy, and that Leah's presence as well as her lack of authentic dress spoil their endeavors.
Tom tries to be conciliatory, but Leah seems unfazed, and we appreciate her spunk.
What follows is an exchange between the three, which has some surprising moments, in which we learn more about them. Cal and Tom are lifelong residents of Gettysburg. Leah has recently moved from New York, where she had sought a career as a dancer, and has settled in Gettysburg because she spun the globe and her finger randomly pointed to the town.
In between their conversation, there are breaks in which the three move downstage and briefly assume the roles of the folks from 1863 they represented in the re-enactment. It's clear that the time and place have shifted. Then, time shifts again and they resume their present-day conversation.
It's damn hard to write a good play. I've seen dozens of new plays over the years, and I respect the companies willing to take a chance on an unproven one. And although I am delighted with the amazing effort it takes to get your story out there, I'm often surprised by a new play's deficiencies. It's also hard to review a production of a new play. It's hard to tell if the deficiencies—or successes—of the play might originate from the script itself or from the production, which might not serve the play so well. Do the actors get the information they need from the script to build credible characters, or was successfully creating the characters beyond their skill level? Is the play structured well enough that a director can follow its course through its complications and conflicts to a climax in which the dramatic import—even though it might be slight—is revealed with its intended impact on the audience?
In this case, I think that both the play and its production create some difficulties. Dickey's play shows promise, but it seems too sparse to really have the effect I think she's looking for. She raises important issues, but they don't get developed enough to deliver a point of view that lands with impact on the audience. In fact, there might be too many threads of themes running through the 80-minute play.
I also had trouble feeling emotionally connected to the characters. It's obvious why Cal isn't the easiest person to relate to. And although Leah is an intriguing character, I really didn't feel I was invested in her. Wood, however, creates a very sympathetic Tom.
The course of the play does lead to a change, particularly with Cal and Leah, but is it really plausible? And dramatically speaking, the moment in which that change takes hold seems to come and go without much impact. Is that the play or the production?
One thing that would have helped would have been for director Coffman, who also designed the set, to think about bringing the scene occurring at the bar downstage, closer to the audience. Dickey's story is really a quiet one, but here the bulk of it happens upstage. A design could be devised so that we could get closer to what's happening and still preserve a distinctive space for the scenes in which the characters travel back in time to the battle.
I do think that Dickey has found an intriguing—and often very funny—way to explore her predominant theme: the past is always with us and that we keep repeating our mistakes in spite of our best efforts. It will be interesting to see if or how it is embraced by audiences. But remember—thanks to WRTE, you saw it here first.