Dallas — “The house is gone; the Yankees blew it up,” says the confederate-cap-wearing Civil War buff, pleased he’s found the right historical marker. His grimacing wife is less than thrilled: “You drug me to the middle of nowhere so you could show me a place where nothing happened?” Why do we go to historic places—and what, if anything, do such journeys have to do with our own lives.
The Road to Appomattox, Catherine Bush’s 2011 play commissioned by Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., and currently at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, links a momentous historic event and a private marital crisis, with mixed results. Susan Sargeant directs a lively production of the play, with a capable cast and an elegant, seamless blending of two timelines intersecting around themes of battle, surrender—and the implicit command, “Forward, march!”
The union of North and South, threatened by the Civil War, led to a historic surrender at Appomattox by Robert E. Lee, the reluctant commander of the Confederate Army, following his final campaign after four years of bloody fighting. Bush picks up General Lee (a bearded, dignified Robert Banks) in his camp tent on the eve of retreat in April 1865 when he learns Richmond has fallen, and he is surrounded by Union forces. His aide-de-camp Taylor (a devoutly attentive, soldier-fit Matt Holmes), a young man committed to his leader, is the general’s sounding board in questions of honor and matters of life, death and strategic supply lines.
The total trust between old and young allows Lee to speak honestly of the conflict he felt in walking away from the U.S. Army and standing by his home state of Virginia when Jefferson Davis opted for secession. Lee is good at war—and he knows it—but he sees his hungry, exhausted army all about him. “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow to fond of it,” he tells Taylor. Bush weaves Lee’s eloquent statements into his dialogue, and Banks delivers the language with authority and ease.
The parallel story of the other “threatened union” takes place 150 years later as Jenny (long-limbed Catherine DuBord, pleading and pouting by turns) and Steve (a tense, tight-mouthed Jeff Swearingen) retrace the road Lee’s army took because he’s discovered an old document that might prove his great-great-great ancestor may have played a role in that historic event.
It’s clear from the get-go these two are in a bad funk. He’s utterly obsessed with old battlefields, and insists his wife call him Beau, like his ancestor. She’s about had it with all things Civil. After 11 years of marriage, Jenny is doing a post-doc in thermodynamics, and is caught up in her new job and conferences and research stuff. Steve worked and paid for her PhD, and the plan was that now they’d have kids and he’d be a stay-at-home dad and everything would be rosy. The problem is, it takes more than talk to make kids—and they just bitch at each other.
Onto the scene appears Chip (a cocky, calculating Kevin Moore), a hunky Civil War Historian on a motorcycle, that Steve hopes will decode the ancestral document that inspired the journey. While bumbling “Buffy” Steve slogs onward to the next marker, grinning Chip talks a little history and quotes the law about entropy to Jenny, who could use a little muscled, intelligent attention, for pity’s sake.
They both flash their PhDs like shiny swords, and we’re told more than once how the second law of thermodynamics works, and how it affects physical matter. So—how about relationships? There’s even a smarty-pants reference to Humpty Dumpty and all the king’s horses. Unfortunately, it appears the second time coming out of Lee’s mouth. The master military strategist has doubtlessly suffered worse indignities. Historian Chip, expanding on why the south was “stuck in the past,” glibly explains, “Slavery was certainly a component.” The sign on this road reads “stuck in the past,” so a more specific discussion is curtailed quickly.
The two stories are played out on the same location, indicated by Rodney Dobbs’ spare but effective set design—a great tent shape looming over a single camp desk. Swearingen and DuBord wring some poignancy and humor from their plight as thirtysomethings in a marriage gone mute, and what they learn from their journey certainly grows from the clever plot revelations. What Jenny and Steve have built together and what is at risk is not deeply explored here, so we are not as engaged by whether they resolve their crisis.
The urgency of Lee’s predicament, constantly updated by a messenger (Moore, smartly serving double duty in a Confederate uniform), is dramatic and compelling stuff, as written and performed.
Director Sargeant smoothly links one scene to the next, with soldiers leaving as hikers follow literally in their footsteps, the way we might imagine the presence of a long gone sentry as we walk the battlements of an old fortress. I went home and read up on Robert E. Lee, so fascinating this complex figure remains – in history and on a stage.