Life during wartime
John Brown’s Body
In Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem about the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body,” Confederate General Robert E. Lee says, “It is well that war should be so terrible; if it were not we might become too fond of it.” Profound words considering the situation the country now finds itself in—stuck in a war from which we can’t seem to emerge. Has history taught us nothing?
We can always hope the next generation will get it. At least, the young cast of this Carson Performing Arts’ production probably will.
Written in the 1920s, Benet’s “John Brown’s Body” is often called the only “true” American epic poem. It describes several Northern and Southern lives, all cast against this same backdrop, illustrating that the effects of war are far-reaching and devastating, regardless of whether you’re rich or poor, male or female, black or white. Originally intended to be read aloud, this lyric, beautiful poem lends itself well to dramatic interpretation.
The cast is comprised of a 16-person ensemble, several of whom play many roles. They’re backed by the Carson High School Chamber Choir, under the direction of Susan Sonnemaker, performing Fenno Heath’s choral additions to Benet’s poetry.
While several individual stories unfold—too many to describe here—they include, of course, the story of John Brown (Joshua Wold), the famous abolitionist who led a raid on Harper’s Ferry to incite a slave rebellion and was subsequently captured by Lee’s troops, convicted of treason and hanged.
We also meet Jack Ellyat (Dakota Dutcher), a devoted union soldier who falls in love with, impregnates and is eventually separated from the lovely Melora Vilas (Lainey Henderson). His Confederate counterpart is Clay Wingate (Maxwell Greb), who hails from a Georgia plantation and also is separated from his love, Sally Dupré (Karissa Pulizzotto), by war. It becomes clear that for all concerned, war isn’t glorious or heroic. It’s hell.
Because the poem takes center stage here, the production elements are sparse. Costuming is black pants and vests for the men, and black skirts and leotards for the women. Vests and leotards are colored blue or gray, accordingly. Overhead are projected photographs and illustrations depicting the war. Behind a scrim are the chorus and pianist.
But the staging is where the problems arise. First, the raw power and beauty of the writing beg for a small, intimate theater. Instead, CPA is forced to perform—due to lack of its own facilities—in an auditorium. It’s unfortunate because many of the performers haven’t quite perfected the art of projecting their voices, so hearing some of the performers is virtually impossible—especially because several of them race through their lines, speak too quietly or don’t enunciate their words. Some even giggled when they flubbed their lines—hopefully just opening night jitters. And you might as well give up when the chorus is singing; they completely, frustratingly, overpower the cast.
Yet several cast members stand out with moving, professional performances. These include, most notably, Dutcher as Ellyat, and Henderson as Melora. While the sing-songy, rhyming nature of the poem seems to overpower the meaning of the words delivered by several performers, when Dutcher and Henderson take the spotlight, they command your attention, all predictability of the text falls away, and the words take on their full weight.
Also enjoyable are Erin Etcheverria as Mary Lou Wingate, the matriarch of Wingate manor; Brooke Galyan as an amusing and lovable spoiled brat, Lucy Weatherby; and Jacob Linstrom as the much-revered General Lee.
Audiences, hopefully, will come away with a respect for the author’s work, an appreciation for the timeliness of the subject and maybe some hope for the future.