A Season of Exploration, Part II: A Triumphant Return

The standing ovation.  The knowledge that we were able to move and enrich the audience with powerful storytelling.  The satisfaction of entertaining others.  What a triumphant night!

Last night was the staged reading of Civil War Voices at the Omaha Playhouse and it was a magical evening.  It was the type of night that reminds me just why I do this thing.  It also got my juices flowing again.  I suddenly want to start telling a lot more stories.  But that’s a road for the future.

Doing Civil War Voices was a very different experience.  After 20 years of acting, I am simply used to a longer, more detailed preparation experience.  Trying to find and mold a character in just 7 short rehearsals is quite a unique challenge.

Not only was Abraham Lincoln my first role in 2 ½ years, but it was also the smallest role I’ve had in nearly six years.  Not that I’m complaining.  It’s just that I had forgotten the very different difficulty of a smaller role.  With a larger role, if you’re not in the proper groove at first, you can use your dialogue to work yourself to where you need to be.  If you have a smaller role, you simply do not have that luxury.  You’ve got to hit the ground running and make your shots count.  For this show, that was more crucial than ever before because it would just be the one bite at the apple.

I think the late singer, Gene Pitney, described a great live performance the best when he said, “On a given night, when everything works.  When the lights are right.  When the sound is right.  When you’re up for the game and you’re feeling right.  Some of them are intangibles.  They’re either going to happen or they’re not going to happen.  But on the given night when they do happen, it’s just an amazing feeling.  You can feel the electricity going back and forth.  Fantastic.”  And last night was just such a night.

I had a feeling we were onto something special last night when we had to hold at the top of the show because so many people wanted to get in to watch.  Our director, Jeff Horger, had said these events normally draw about 100 people and I believe the Howard Drew holds around 250-300 people.  Additional chairs had to be brought in to create two more front rows plus seating around the sides of theatre because of the overflow.

The lower stakes of a staged reading allowed me to be in sync with an audience in a way I never had before.  I really can’t describe the feeling of feeding off the merriment of the audience during the more humorous segments of the show to the sensation of knowing you’ve got them in the palm of your hand during a particularly powerful moment.  But it’s splendid, awesome, and humbling all at the same time.

The work of the cast was just spot-on and I was very pleased with my own take on Honest Abe.  More importantly, I nailed one of the most difficult lines that I think I have ever had in all of my years of theatre.

A few paragraphs ago, I had mentioned the difficulty and importance of making your shots count in a smaller role.  I believe the most important line I had in the show occurred when Lincoln looks at the body of his dead son, Willie, and simply says, “My poor boy.  He was too good for this Earth.”  I knew what I wanted to do with the line.  But in working at home and at rehearsal, I never thought I got it just right.  But last night it came.

If I never understood the importance of listening in acting before last night, I certainly do now.  Last night, I heard the words of Elizabeth Keckley (beautifully played and sung by Camille Metoyer Moten) describing the terrible burden of grief and weariness on Lincoln’s shoulders from the pressures of the Civil War and the death of Willie as if I were hearing them for the first time.  I began falling into the proper emotional state and, remembering my lessons with Doug Blackburn, began dipping into my own wells of grief to empathize with Lincoln.  Real tears began flowing as I barely choked out the crucial line and I could feel the grip of emotion on the audience as well.  Such an amazing moment.

When the night was done, we received a standing ovation and I was truly sorry that we couldn’t do the reading a few more times.  I didn’t get to know this cast that well due to the compressed nature of preparation, but I liked them and it was a true community theatre cast from seasoned veterans to first timers and all levels in between.

My proudest moment occurred after the show when an elderly gentleman came up to me and asked, “Young man, are you playing Abe when they do this show in Lincoln?”  I replied that I was not and, with a disappointed look in his face said, “I really loved what you did with the character.”  One could not ask for a finer review than that one statement.  If I was able to convince one person, then I did my job.

Last night reminded me of all the glorious thrills that theatre provides.  It was a wonderful night and I look forward to doing it again and again and again and again. . .

Until we meet again.

“Civil War Voices” to Play on Sept 28 at Omaha Community Playhouse

Staged Reading | Howard Drew Theatre
Written by James R Harris | Music by Mark Hayes | Directed by Jeff Horger

Civil War Voices is a collection of compelling and passionate true stories of real individuals who lived through the Civil War, often using the actual words they left behind in diaries, letters and other writings. This is a creative presentation of the history of the Civil War with chilling stories of battle and death, injustices and hope for the future, all intertwined with songs of that time period. Appropriate for all audiences.

Location:  Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE)

Date & Time:  Monday, September 28 at 7:30pm

The performance is free.

Cast

Lauren Anderson: Second Master, Confederate Woman
Chris Elston: Abraham Lincoln
Peggy A Holloway: Fire-Eater #1, St. Louis Woman
Stacy Hopkins: Narrator’s Father, Cook
Megan Ingram: Harriet Perry
Frank Insolera Jr.: Sgt. George Buck
Angela Jenson-Fey: Cornelia Harris
Emma Johnson: Governor Washburn, General Lee, Celebrant #2
Zach Kloppenborg: Theo Perry
Julie Livingston: Mrs. Jefferson Davis, Old Mistress, Confederate Medic
Emily Mokrycki: Mary Todd Lincoln
Camille Metoyer Moten: Elizabeth Keckley
Bridget Mueting: Stage Directions
Brian Priesman: Narrator/Joe Harris
Tony Schik: First Master, Union General, Confederate Officer
Ryann Woods: Keckley’s Mother, General Hunt, Celebrant #1
Mark Thornburg: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.