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A CurtainUp San Diego Review
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
by Gordon Osmond

Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But when is "all" a bit much? When TV producer/writer Martin Tahse decides to write, and overwrite, his first play, an adaptation of Allan Gurganus's award-winning, best-selling novel of the same name, that's when.

When Betty White, a Golden Girl, starts to tell stories about happenings in her beloved St. Olaf, Bea Arthur is happily around to cut them short. We could have used Bea at several points during this "one-woman drama" (a/k/a monologue) which has opened the Old Globe's 2003 season in San Diego. It is not until the widow has survived a loveless marriage, children without end or longevity, the Civil War, and, perhaps most heroically, Act One, that her story settles in to some degree of dramatic coherence.

Lucy Marsden, an aged widow of a Confederate captain, who lives in a world devoid of automobiles, airplanes and script editing devices, is clearly a survivor. Her longevity seems grounded in a strong physical constitution, which enables her to use her cane more as a pointer than for support -- and, more importantly, in her ability to find humor in horror. She's at her most revelatory when she describes her wedding night, the numerous deaths of her children and the pilgrimage of a soldier to the family of his unwanted victim. Her account of the burial of a fouled fur coat is hilarious and her description of wounds suffered by a child at the reckless hand of his father, truly haunting, producing a palpable hush in the audience. No problem with the raw material.

But surely, with the application of some dramatalurgical expertise, these theatrical and literary excitements could have been fashioned into a focused coup de theatre instead of being made to fight for their lives in an endless and shapeless narrative which threatens to drown them at every turn.

Never has the term "one-woman show" been so aptly applied. Ellen Burstyn, an actor constitutionally incapable of untruthfulness in performance, is basically unassisted in her effort to bring Lucy to life. Dan Scardino's direction has a definite "Well, we've got to give her something to do" quality throughout. The arbitrariness of his blocking choices is matched only by Kenneth Posner's lighting which posits change for the sake of change as a value in itself.

The set, designed by Allen Moyer, gives the impression of a gymnasium into which an oasis of kitsch has been dropped. It serves most effectively as a serviceable screen for Wendall Harrington's well-chosen video projections. Sound designer Peter Fitzgerald apparently didn't feel up to the task of underlining some of the play's more poignant moments with appropriate musical literature.

Jane Greenwood's single costume represents a good half-hour's work, but her credit is modest compared to the program's acknowledgement of Liz Woodman Casting. How clever of them to find Ms. Burstyn. But by whomever, and however, she was found, Burstyn shines with a rare radiance that transforms the play's better moments into gold and bestows forgiveness on its plentiful failings. Given the fact that Ms. Burstyn is a charter member of that cadre of actors with a renowned capacity to illuminate the reading of the telephone book, it is sad that her talent has been, on this occasion, so often, and so sorely, tested. Ms. Burstyn's total immersion in the role is proven when, much too late in the evening, she is able to deliver the play's curtain line--"The War is Over"--without a trace of contemporary irony.

There are dwindling references to the possible transfer of this play to Broadway. It would be wonderful if Ms. Burstyn could return with a better conceived, and significantly trimmed down adaptation of this commendable novel.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Author: Adapted for the stage by Martin Tahse from the novel by Allan Gurganus
Director: Don Scardino
Cast: Ellen Burstyn
Scenic Design: Allen Moyer
Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Costume Design: Jane Greenwood
Projection Design: Wendall K. Harrington
Running Time: 2 ½ hours, with one intermission
The Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego CA Ph: 619.239.2255
February 1 through March 8, 2003
Reviewed on February 1, 2003
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