Next Lab

Like General George Armstrong Custer himself at the battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer seems doomed from the start. Trying to make a coherent drama out of actions and events that remain shrouded in mystery seems a hopeless endeavor, and especially when the title character is based on a man of such contradictory impulses.

Custer was a brave, shrewd soldier who demonstrated such valor during the Civil War that he was named a brigadier general at the age of 23, the youngest U.S. soldier ever to achieve that rank; yet he was also prone to reckless misjudgments on the battlefield, inspired, it seems, by a belief in his own invincibility. He was a vain man with a taste for flamboyant dress who dreamed of running for president, yet he was also devoted to his wife Libbie and deeply respected by his men. He was known for his fairness to Indians, yet on June 25, 1876, he was leading his men on an expedition that would almost certainly result in the massacre of hundreds of Indians–men, women, and children–who had wandered off the reservation.

Playwright Robert E. Ingham wisely chooses not to organize this information as a chronological narrative but as a series of impressionistic, loosely connected vignettes. We learn that Custer gave his wife the table on which General Robert E. Lee signed the peace treaty at the end of the Civil War. We hear Custer explain that he had his cavalry sing “Garryowen,” a Scottish drinking song, when riding into battle because the song’s tempo increases from a trot to a canter to a gallop. The soldiers explain how their carbines were apt to jam, which may have contributed to the Indian victory at Little Bighorn; and an Indian tells the apocryphal story of the soldier fleeing the massacre who was chased by an unarmed brave: when the Indian started to catch up, the soldier suddenly stopped his horse, turned toward his pursuer, put his revolver to his head, and killed himself.

Many of these info bits are interesting, but they don’t add up to a coherent perspective on Custer or the battle of the Little Bighorn. Ingham can’t be blamed for failing to find the truth–historians still argue about what happened on that sunny summer afternoon. But Ingham is a playwright, not a historian; he is supposed to use what facts there are to generate drama.

Instead, he turns Custer into a mere exercise in placing blame. Captain F. W. Benteen, for example, who was leading a scouting party several miles from the attack on Custer, vehemently denies that he withheld his support. And Major R. A. Reno, whose men were routed when they tried to attack a massive Indian encampment along the Little Bighorn River, is accused of cowardice. These two characters, portrayed by powerful actors, add the only trace of dramatic conflict this play has. Rick Peeples, as the gentlemanly Benteen, sits stolidly on a chair throughout the show, sipping on one of his beloved rum toddies and addressing the audience with all the authority of a military man who demands attention and respect. And as Reno, Dan Rivkin delivers a wrenching self-defense–a defense that crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. Their performances are very strong, but they can’t give Custer the focus and intensity it needs.

Like the play, Next Lab’s production invites the placing of blame. In his program bio, Ingham mentions that Custer has been produced “a dozen times or so,” including at such prestigious theaters as the Kennedy Center in Washington and Milwaukee Rep. Presumably some of these other productions have been effective or the script would have dropped out of circulation.

So is the Next Lab’s production inadequate? I don’t think so. Marc A. Nelson directs effectively, considering the limitations of the Next Lab space, and Robert G. Smith’s lighting is very effective. And the other actors are capable–especially Troy West, who captures Custer’s smug, supercilious attitude, and Kristen Sahs, who is the embodiment of devotion as his wife.

The only culprit I can find is Ingham’s script, which proves an interesting history lesson but tedious drama.