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Dorothy Chansky

"Amelia," a Civil War "Odyssey"

Shirleyann Kaladjian as Amelia.

Fort Jay in the Powder Magazine on Governor’s Island
May 26-June 17
Reserve free tickets at www.ameliatheplay.com

Reviewed by Dorothy Chansky June 6, 2012

"Amelia" is a kind of inverse "Odyssey." The protagonist is a woman on a long, dangerous, episodic journey in search of her husband, and rather than returning from war she is marching into it. It’s 1861. The recently married heroine leaves her farm in Pennsylvania to embark on a trek that concludes in Georgia. The faithful couple is reunited but not without some near misses and a question mark at the end.

Playwright Alex Webb has crafted a highly portable two-hander that started life earlier this year in Washington, D.C. It gains resonance in its current New York venue, a former powder house on Governor’s Island. The dark, windowless, stone surroundings amplify the play’s spare narrative of war devastating ordinary people when they least expect, want, or even understand it. Audiences have a chance to ease into a slowed-down mindset on the short boat ride from Manhattan’s South Ferry, which provides reminders that life in the nineteenth century – war or no – meant physical demands and exposure to the elements that today are more the stuff of recreation than the everyday. The play’s tribulations are built on the back of precisely such demands.

No-nonsense Amelia, who helps run her parents’ homestead, is an able dairy farmer, good with a shotgun, and too opinionated for any garden variety man in her immediate environs. When the local storekeeper’s cousin comes to town, Amelia meets her match. Ethan likes women with minds of their own. He especially likes Amelia’s views on Lincoln and liberty. Accordingly, when war is declared and he enlists, she is both furious and proud of him.

Shirleyann Kaladjian and Alex Webb in "Amelia." Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Shirleyann Kaladjian is a plucky Amelia, too forthright for her own good and too heartbroken to sit on her hands when her beloved fails to return as promised. Her quest leads through some familiar literary terrain, including the runaway slave with a heart of gold and morals to match, and the specter of dead bodies piled so deep that the only way to get down the road is to ride over them, the corpses’ bones crunching under the horse’s hooves. No matter, though, as the tale continuously leads to a "what’s next."

So hungry that she begins to hallucinate, Amelia imagines a dead soldier telling her to take his uniform and pass herself off as an enlisted man. A haircut and a quick change later, her cross-dressing gambit lands her first in the thick of battle (those shotgun skills) and then in enemy hands as a prisoner of war. She has learned that her husband’s regiment were all either killed at Chancellorsville or taken as prisoners to the notorious Andersonville, where fifteen-foot high walls surround an unroofed pen of sewage housing three times the number of captives for which it was built. It is here that the nearly starved, badly wounded duo miraculously find each other. They recognize each other’s voices, as deprivation and injury have altered their physicalities beyond anything either one can immediately identify.Opposite Kaladjian, Alex Webb plays all the other roles. He is a charming and virile Ethan, a persuasive and snarling pair of bullying military men, a desperate and derisive horse thief, a simpering flirt, a long-suffering mother, and the noble runaway slave. His women are less successful than his men, but broad strokes help differentiate and clarify characters whose appearances are brief yet important to the saga.

Despite a very simple set (a piece of fence, a partial wagon, a bench, and no designer credit, "Amelia" is a well-crafted production. Marianne Meadows’s lighting conveys a variety of moods with precision. Steve Nelson’s sound design includes fiddle music (both diegetic and for ambience) and creates subtle emotional shifts effectively and unobtrusively. Director Bill Largess uses slow motion and turn-on-a-dime reversals to convey development and occasionally to pull the rug of comfort out from under us.

"Amelia" tells a good story (even if parts of it are predictable) and is solid testament to the enduring power of the plank-and-a-passion school of theatre making. Admission to performances in the current run is free (including the ferry ride) thanks in part to the National Park Service. If this isn’t exactly the Federal Theatre Project redux, it’s still terrific and creative government support for the arts.

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