KPBS AIRDATE: February 9, 2003
It’s a good time for small-town stories. One Southern, one mid-Western, two plays tell harrowing tales of the personal cost of war — whether it be the so-called Civil conflict or the Vietnam conflagration. The battles were separated by a century, but these women are alive now, strong survivors of domestic violence who struck back and reclaimed their lives. Both plays are adaptations: “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” comes from the best-selling Alan Gurganus novel of the same name; and “The Spitfire Grill” is a musicalized version of the 1996 indie film which featured, ironically, Ellen Burstyn.
The Oscar and Tony-winning Burstyn is ‘The Oldest Living Confederate Widow” in Martin Tahse’s reworking of the sprawling 1989 novel. In the book, Lucy Marsden, age 99, confined to a wheelchair and a senior residence, tells her story to an eager young reporter. In the world premiere stage version at the Globe, she’s giving a presentation to raise money for the residence home. Hunkered down with the novel, I was enveloped by Lucy’s life and times, snuggled into a deep, colorful tapestry. From this, Tahse has stitched a sampler: clearly a labor of love, nicely framed, but more flat and distancing. Burstyn’s performance is wonderfully textured, as she unravels threads from her long, hard life. Lucy, a mother of nine, was married at 15 to a 50 year-old, war-ravaged Civil War vet. “I’ve mostly got his war stories and my peace ones,” she says in the book. In the play, the balance is tipped; we get a much clearer picture of the damaged and damaging Cap than we do of Lucy herself. Burstyn looks radiant, but with her wrinkle-free skin and spry agility, she isn’t a convincing centenarian. Despite the evocative sets, lighting, slide projections and sound, we get more length than depth in the piece. Next stop for Burstyn and Lucy is Broadway. I hope it’s a rewarding journey.
Hope is served up in large portions at “The Spitfire Grill,” where a girl with a past steps into a town with no future. Gilead, set in Maine in the movie, moves onstage to Wisconsin, where composer James Valcq was born and where lyricist Fred Alley suddenly died. The show opened the day after 9/11, so sorrow and healing were part of the musical’s creation as well as its story. The piece, a heart-warming, uplifting tribute to the human spirit, is neither hurt nor significantly enhanced by musicalization. The country-pop score is pleasant, the band is great, the singing of the engaging 7-member cast is fine, if sometimes strained. Moonlight’s Vista production, directed by Kathy Brombacher, is warmly irresistible nonetheless. Both these plays concern the strength and resilience of women; having told their stories, one is ready to die, the other is ready for love.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.