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A CurtainUp Review
Row After RowJordan G. Teicher
For a playwright looking to explore the intersection of past and the present a war re-enactment is fertile, if fairly obvious, dramatic ground. So is the case in Jessica Dickey's new play, Row After Row, set in the aftermath of a Civil War battle re-enactment in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But while Dickey sets the stage right, there's something a little off about this character-based comedy-drama.
It's not for a lack of conflict. Sparks fly right away when buddies Tom (Erik Lochtefeld) and Cal (PJ Sosko) enter their favorite bar after their annual date with history only to find a stranger, first-timer Leah (Rosie Benton), sitting at their usual table. Mild-mannered Tom is happy to share the space, but brash Cal is more confrontational — and Leah is ready to lock horns.
What follows over a couple rounds of beers is a freewheeling battle of the wits, tinged with the hint of romantic possibility. Cal proves himself to be essentially as macho and petty as he seems at first glance. Leah for some reason suffers his childishness. Tom mostly serves as a middleman. As Cal tells Leah more about the re-enactment universe, issues of gender, race and historical progress come to the fore.
But Dickey puts too much on the Civil War's shoulders. That starts to show particularly when Leah delivers a long, purple monologue about her experience on the battlefield earlier that day. In a scene previously laced with humor and contemporary self-awareness, her speech is jarringly overblown. Cal and Tom's un-ironic, awed reactions seem out of character.
It's a sign of things to come. Soon after, the lights shift and we're suddenly transported to 1863. Tom has become an actual union deserter and Leah a woman providing him refuge. It's one of many such scenes interlaced amongst the present action, which ultimately also involve Cal as a Confederate colonel. While Clint Ramos' brilliant set design helps ease these transitions aesthetically, there's no avoiding their narrative clunkiness. Whatever parallels Dickey was hoping to draw between these characters and their historical counterparts are not worth the disruption.
Back in the present, talk of thread count and historical accuracy is replaced by more meaningful revelations of character. Tom worries about his looming fatherhood and the decision to participate in a teacher strike. Leah opens up about the dance career she left behind in New York, and the accompanying sense of defeat that came along with it. Cal mourns his dwindling friendship with Tom.
In the end it's Tom who's most changed by the experience. But for a play that spends so much energy introducing us to its characters, it devotes disappointingly little time to their growth. Despite strong performances from Benton and Sosko, Leah and Cal's romance never quite feels genuine. There's lots of talk in Row After Row, but it doesn't lead to much. The ultimate feeling is one of stasis. Perhaps it's inevitable that a play about re-enacting the past would ultimately get stuck in it.