by Montserrat Mendez · March 16, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #56 Montserrat Mendez comments on Near Vicksburg by Sara Farrington Sara Farrington’s Near Vicksburg is about the brutality of evolution in the midst of seismic historical events.
Except these colossal changes are reflected by the thirty seven days that three people spend hidden away in a cave near the town that is being demolished by mortar fire. That it comes from a real life civil war occurrence is even more mind blowing.
Thirty-seven days is the days it takes for a woman to be liberated from her past, from the south as represented by the fading memory of her husband and give in to her feral, repressed desires. Thirty-seven days is the days it takes for a slave to claim the ownership of his soul, fully knowing that even if the Union Army wins the war, his freedom will not guarantee the same protection as that cave. Thirty-seven days is the days it takes a fifteen year old girl to be stripped of her innocence, and made to blossom in the darkness.
It is a beautiful, eloquent, powerful and uncomfortable play. Riveting and challenging.
Set in the south the play also made me consider something I had never considered before. The tension that slaves and their owners must have felt when they began to realize that the south would not stand. In that cave, three people, played out that tension between the old and the new, the structured past and the chaos of an uncertain future. And I have to say, I LOVED IT.
I have an uneasy past with Ms. Farrington’s work. I don’t know her, but I know of her and a few years ago I reviewed one of her plays, The Death of Evie Avery, and I was quite vocal about its strengths and its weaknesses which seemed to keep an equal balance. Though it contained some beautiful poetic moments both visually (Evie was ably directed by Melissa Firlit) and spoken, I felt that she over-explained her theme.
But, Ms. Farrington’s work as a director has always been so precise that to this day I still remember the opening moment of that past play, Evie swimming in an ocean in our imaginations. But, I felt that she over-explained her theme.
There is no over-explanation in Near Vicksburg. Ms. Farrington acts as both writer and director this time, and she eloquently succeeds as both. It is the quietest, most unsettling play I have had to grapple with in a long time.
It’s a challenge to direct a piece where so many of the moments have to be painted. But, oh, if done with the specificity of this production, it feels like poetry.
She also availed herself of a top notch cast, not a weak link, and our three main protagonists had their own silent journeys to undergo, while still undertaking the journey of the group.
Megan Emery Gaffeny gives a daring and brave performance as Jane, Ugu Chukwo plays the difficult role of George with dignity and also with a clever masculinity. He wants Jane but in his movements, and in silent glances, he convinces Jane that it is she who wants him. They play this game back and forth, until they trust the world they build in the cave more than the world waiting for them outside.
But, it is Zoe Van Tieghem’s performance that awed me, she is a child when she enters the cave, precocious and sometimes obnoxious, as she calls out for “momma” in her higher register, but she discovers her power as a woman while struggling to survive, it is an almost unbearable blossoming to watch; suddenly she is aware of the dangers, and when dealing with a one-arm soldier that temporarily takes shelter with them, she is even turned on by the danger. This is not your mother’s southern belle. The one-arm soldier is played by Christopher Michael Burke, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors in the NY theatre scene.
English is my second language, but I finally found an example of what American’s like to call waiting with “baited breath” because I was indeed baited and like much of Sara Farrington’s play I was left breathless.