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In the late '80s, Saturday Night Live did a savagely funny sketch on the throngs who are seriously obsessed with Star Trek. It featured William Shatner himself appearing at a Trekkie convention urging the costumed Spocks and Kirks to "get a life" and stop taking so seriously a series he had done as a lark 20 years before.
Jessica Dickey's fine Row After Row, which is currently receiving its regional premiere at People's Light & Theatre Company, concerns a group with a similar unusual passion: Civil War reenactors. Like the Saturday Night Live sketch, it pokes fun at their obsessions, but the satire is gentle, and the characters come across as human beings, not cartoons.
The play cuts back and forth between short scenes set during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and present-day exchanges among the reenactors.
Tom and Cal are lifelong friends who meet in Gettysburg each summer to reenact Pickett's Charge. After the event one year, they head to a local bar for a beer and encounter Leah, a transplanted New Yorker who is new to Gettysburg and the reenactments. She is trying to start a new life after a failed career as a modern dancer. Leah spars with the chauvinistic Cal, who doubts that women should be in the reenactment. Mild-mannered Tom plays referee.
Looking for direction
As they interact, it becomes clear that all of the characters are lost in some way. They're weighed down by economic challenges, gender discrimination, and artistic and romantic frustrations. As horrendous as war is, one character remarks, you're never unsure about what direction to follow in battle. They seem to be drawn to the reenactment because it provides a semblance of clarity their messy modern lives lack.
Under David Bradley's fluid direction, the three actors are uniformly superb, each finely shading a multifaceted character. William Zielinski's Cal at first seems to be a Neanderthal, but the actor gradually strips away the façade to reveal a likable and even somewhat sensitive man. Likewise, Teri Lamm's Leah starts out as a tough, savvy feminist but soon begins to display her vulnerability. Kevin Bergen makes Tom the prototype of the reasonable man. When his guard is down, it's clear that Tom is terrified of the uncertainties and responsibilities of modern life.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella's attractive set depicts both the cozy interior of the pub where the three characters clash and a hilltop overlooking the Gettysburg battlefield, where distant campfires appear when the sun sets.
At 80 minutes, Row After Row is short but substantial, an impressive work by a very promising young talent.
What, When, Where
Row After Row.Written by Jessica Dickey. David Bradley directed. Through November 9 at People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.
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