Shirleyann Kaladjian in AMELIA. (photo courtesy of John Capo Public Relations)
BOTTOM LINE: This site-specific Civil War drama from a new point of view is a display of virtuosic acting and directing despite some heavy-handed themes.
A play can benefit an incredible amount simply from the choice of space for the production. Amelia, a new Civil War-era tale en route from its premiere in Washington DC, benefits from its NYC performance space as much as anything I’ve ever seen in the theatre. Director Bill Largess and playwright Alex Webb (serving double duty and more as actor here) have found the perfect home for the summer run of Amelia on Governor’s Island. Hidden away inside of the 1794 structure known as Fort Jay, you walk through the darkly lit corridor of the Fort Jay Powder Magazine. Serving many purposes throughout the years, Fort Jay was (most appropriately for context) a holding prison for Confederate officers during the Civil War. Numerous visitors each summer come to Fort Jay to explore a piece of New York history. Adding this historical play to a visit to the island makes perfect sense. The site-specific space is made more effective through the subtle yet powerful staging by Largess. His characters traverse the small stone room simply yet innovatively. Virtuosic acting all around make this play worth the trip for those interested in something different than large casts and spectacle in their historic drama.
Webb focuses the story on a Civil War-era Pennsylvanian woman named Amelia (played strongly by Shirleyann Kaladjian). The bulk of the story is her search for her husband who went off to fight for the Union army in some of the most deadly battlefields such as Gettysburg. Her epic journey leads her all the way to the infamous Confederate prison of Andersonville. Webb’s inspiration stems from a journal entry he found from researching Andersonville which read, “Rumor has it that a woman has come in here after man.” Webb has let his mind follow through on what the actuality of such an unimaginable feat of courage would have entailed. Alex Webb plays her husband Ethan as well as a wide-array of characters taking on the physicality and dimension of each person Amelia deals with on her way.
One of the more refreshing aspects about Webb’s script is how much artistry it allows for in theatre-making. Doubtless this is aided by the versatility of Webb as an actor. His seamless shifts between characters of both sexes are never jarring and we accept the convention easily as Webb avoids ever doing caricatures. Each one of the ten plus characters Webb inhabits is slightly different, and his performance as the female characters thankfully remains grounded vocally and never approaches campy falsetto. His portrayal of Amelia’s mother is incredibly gentle and human. Contrasting this, his turn as a barking Union corporal proves just as convincing.
The overarching journey and tightly woven details drawn in characters compensate for some occasional overly-blunt dialogue. Webb is impressive though in crafting visceral imagery within the narration of Amelia describing limbs being stacked like logs and the crunching of bones under the horse’s hooves. Kaladjian marvelously teeters between fear and emotionless defiance in these moments. Occasionally, the lesson of “women can be just as tough as men” plays slightly backwards for a contemporary adult audience. The need for a woman to become a man in order to prove she is strong may have been far more necessary throughout history compared to now, but this lesson can become a little heavy handed at times in Webb’s script. That being said, for young teen audiences this story may prove a valuable teaching tool into just how much women have had to deal with in order to be respected throughout American history. Needless to stay, the role of women in the Civil War is most certainly glossed over in history textbooks and it’s a story that should be told.
Thankfully Largess’s direction gives Webb’s script a remarkably clean telling of the story. In this space, even a handful of floodlights as the sole lighting prove to be hauntingly effective in Marianne Meadows’ lighting design. The lack of props is the right choice and a set consisting of only a fence and a wheel cart are all that is needed. This efficient way of telling the story leaves plenty of room for our imaginations to fill in the surroundings for a more literary experience.
Several of Webb’s interactions with Amelia are thoroughly compelling, and the way he traverses around the reality of rape for such a character on her own at this time is suggestive enough for older audiences, yet subtle enough for younger ones. However, Webb’s dialogue at the end of Amelia’s journey in some ways undercuts the effort his heroine has put in to reaching that point. The emotion and passion that was compelling her to survive seem absent in her recounting of a story about standing up to a bull as a young girl defining her toughness that bookends the play. Understandably our central characters are at this point, in a massive understatement, pooped. Webb persists to drive home the fact that this woman has accomplished what virtually no man or woman ever could rather than letting his characters connect humanly. Sometimes even the toughest-as-nails men and women can prove just as brave when you let vulnerability show through in an embrace and tears.
(Amelia plays at Fort Jay on Governor's Island through June 16, 2012. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are FREE and reservations can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. For more show information, visit ameliatheplay.com.)