Stage Left Theatre

Inspired by the wartime memoirs of an Illinois farm boy, Leander Stillwell, turned Union soldier, Chicago playwright David Rush has crafted a play that offers a compelling and very authentic-seeming grunt’s-eye view of the Civil War.

We see re-created before our eyes all the highs and lows of that terrible, long, and bloody war: the camp-meeting atmosphere at the war’s beginning; the energy and optimism of young, hopeful men certain they will beat the “rebs” in no time; the sense of despair later when these boys are confronted by war’s harsh realities–poor food, inadequate medical care, senseless death. And thanks to the rearrangement of the Stage Left performance area into a theater-in-the-round, most of the audience sits within two rows of the action.

Watching the play unfold, you can see that Rush knows this period inside out. All of his characters are pitch perfect. The soldiers sound like soldiers, the farmers like farmers. Leander’s father (ably played by Greg Bryant) is every inch the protective, pragmatic parent, Leander himself every inch a romantic, glory-drunk young recruit. And Rush has peppered the dialogue with dozens of expressions that have since fallen out of use: “beholden,” “wumped,” “quick step” (a disease), “going to see the elephant” (going into combat for the first time).

Director Drew Martin’s cast of seasoned non-Equity performers, many of whom play multiple roles, all convincingly impersonate the denizens of this long-past time. Bill Bannon, for example, is equally believable as a drunk jokester named Press and as the dour paymaster. Likewise Steve Heller proves adept at winning laughs as braggart Harvey Burnham and at wringing tears as Enoch Wallace, a soldier who dies a slow, painful, and unnecessary death thanks to the abysmal sanitary conditions in the field.

Martin deserves praise, too, for the clear way he’s staged the show. Over the course of the play–which follows Stillwell from Illinois into Tennessee, where he participates in the Battle of Shiloh, and from there into Virginia–Martin uses every square inch of space at his disposal.

Yet for all Leander Stillwell’s sound and fury, for all the fine realistic detail and the craftsmanlike way Rush allows his play to unfold, there’s something essentially unsatisfying about the play. It’s as if, caught up in the chaos of re-creating the look, feel, and sweep of the war, Rush, Martin, et al failed to deal with some essential dramatic questions.

Who was Leander Stillwell? Though he narrates the tale, by the end we don’t really feel we know him any better. True, we’ve seen him slog through two acts’ worth of hell, surviving Shiloh, witnessing a brutal rape, and (in a scene chillingly reminiscent of Vietnam war atrocities) ordering the summary execution of a southern farmer and his wife for trying to protect their property. Yet for all that Daniel Blinkoff’s Leander is as likable and fresh faced, if a bit more tired, in 1865 as he was in 1861.

But Blinkoff’s dispassionate Stillwell is only a symptom, not the cause, of a deeper problem: somehow Rush, in re-creating the world of Civil War America, lost its soul. In Leander Stillwell we sense the war’s sweep, learn scores of facts, get introduced to dozens of characters, but rarely are we allowed to see the human beings who make these carefully re-created scenes happen. This emptiness at the heart of the play seems all the greater when I remember the deep, sad feeling I had leaving Charles Pike’s dramatic reading of Whitman’s Civil War poems, The Wound Dresser. In that production Pike and company, with the help of Walt Whitman, made certain we felt the Civil War in all its horror and pain.

By contrast Leander Stillwell seems more a re-created tourist village like “New Salem” or a re-enactment of a Civil War battle: the facts are right, all the details are in place, all the actors are in character and uniform. Yet missing is that spark that moves an audience and transforms a good production into a great one.