BWW Review: Studio Tenn's History Lesson for THE BATTLE OF FRANKLIN
Memory plays are a challenge for any playwright - ask Tennessee Williams, whose The Glass Menagerie is not only the quintessential memory play, but is also a theatrical masterpiece - and that may, perhaps, explain the shortcomings found in Studio Tenn's The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided, by Nashville author A.S. Peterson.
Peterson's script focuses on the Carter family of Franklin, Tennessee, whose lives were torn apart by the Civil War, using Tod Carter, here portrayed as a headstrong and willful young man who goes off to fight for the "Glorious Cause" against the wishes of his stern father who continually chides his son to become a man and finds his own words come back to haunt him when he does just that.
It's an intriguing tale that draws upon the rich history of the area to tell the story of how the November 1864 Battle of Franklin happened in the waning days of the Confederacy and represented the South's last valiant efforts to stem the tide of the War for Southern Independence by reversing its battlefield fortunes. Peterson's script sheds light on the citizens of Franklin and how they welcomed secession from the Union and how they fared during the four years of the war (1861-65), with only a modicum of typical Civil War era romanticism that we Southerners love to employ in order to cover up any historical discrepancies and to mask the horrors of an economic system built upon the backs of Africans kidnapped from their homes and forced to serve the whims of their white masters.
The Battle of Franklin attempts to paint a stark portrait of the homefront set against a backdrop of wartime horrors in order to tell a universal story about a family pulled apart by differing viewpoints and political leanings. However, the fact that patriarch F.P. Carter and his son Tod share the same beliefs, instead the family is ripped apart because father and son just don't seem to get along or to express their deeply held, personal feelings about each other. And while fathers and sons have battled it out for centuries, there is nothing particularly unique or compelling about the Carters' struggled; rather, they seem like any other two men at loggerheads with each other because they can't express themselves (which is, at any rate, a very contemporary construct).
Instead, the patriarch's staunch support of Jefferson Davis and company - the good folk of Williamson County seem very much in favor of leaving the Union, although their reasoning seems to be more about states' rights than anything else - is countered not by his own son, but instead by a slave named Henry, whom F.P. continually reminds the audience he raised as his "own." Railing against Henry's newfound independent spirit (which comes as a result of reading about the Emancipation Proclamation - apparently the senior Carter didn't mind breaking the law by allowing his chattel to learn to read), he claims to have treated the slave as if he were family. Apparently, F.P.'s definition of family includes those persons he bought at auction and whose very life he controls completely.
Henry Carter and his wife, Callie, played with utmost dignity by James Rudolph and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva (who mine the material to their advantage to give performances that are thoroughly heartrending) are of the "noble Negro" variety which has replaced the "Stepin Fetchit" slaves of early racist cinema, try to envision a life for themselves and their children without the threat of those progeny being sold away, to live a free existence as the masters of their own fate. But Peterson's script doesn't go much deeper than that.
Sure, Henry runs away and becomes a scout for the Union Army, eventually returning home to the Carter House, where he is reviled by his former master and believed to be a ghost by his wife, who had urged him to fight for the freedom of his children in the first place.
In this day and age (and I can't help but wonder if the powers-that-be at Studio Tenn have misgivings about programming this second iteration of The Battle of Franklin - which debuted to sell-out crowds and critical acclaim during the 2016-17 season - in light of recent developments that have followed incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia), any treatment of material focused on the Civil War is controversial. How does one relitigate the war in general, or the incdendiary topic of slavery in America, adequately in just over two hours in a darkened theater amid the relative creative splendor of theatrical magic?
The obvious answer is that you can't - not that The Battle of Franklin relitigates anything in regard to the war and/or the issues which led to an open rebellion against the United States of America by its Southern states and territories. The resulting play with music instead seems more akin to the flickering film that was played in the museum at the Shiloh National Battlefield (I grew up mere miles from there, so Civil War has always fascinated me and still confounds me, to be honest) when I was boy than anything approaching an incisive and engaging live production with edifying ambitions.
Despite these misgivings, there is still much to appreciate in Studio Tenn's The Battle of Franklin: It's a sumptuously mounted and imaginatively crafted production in the tradition of director/designer Matt Logan's shows for the hometown theater company. The beautifully conceived and artfully rendered physical trappings of the piece (truth be told, the backdrops might remind you of Cracker Barrel restaurant interiors) give the ensemble of actors the perfect stage on which to play and Stephen Moss' lighting design is exquisite.
PatRick Thomas' original music is representative of songs from the time period, and the score interpolates a number of period tunes such as the spiritual "Jacob's Ladder" and the popular song inspired by the war itself "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." However, Thomas' original music has the tendency to sound quite the same, tune after tune, with the same mournful tempos making it difficult to tell one from the other.
Logan directs the show with his usual cinematic ease, bringing the story to life in a series of scenes that dovetail nicely into one another, making transitions seem effortless and keeping the show's action moving apace. Stephen Moss' beautiful lighting design, which is a star of the production in its own right, effectively bathes the stage with evocative, atmospheric shading and color.
Carrie Tillis gives a moving performance as Mary Alice Carter McPail, F.P.'s kindly daughter who urges her father to get in touch with his emotions, and she performs her solo with sincerity and deeply felt emotion. Matthew Carlton gives a well-considered performance as the conflicted head of the Carter family and is given a showcase for his myriad talents and abilities.
Matthew Rosenbaum is convincing in his role of Tod Carter - whom, it is explained by Peterson's script, is enacted by a fictional character you can call "Mint Julep" (I don't get it, either) - and confidently guides his audience through the play. Composer Thomas pulls double duty as Union General Cox, showing a softer side of the invading forces even while showing the Carters who is actually in charge during the ensuing battle that takes place on their land.
Christy Berryessa, one of the relatively unsung heroines of The Battle of Franklin, gives a committed performance of Retha Lotz, a neighbor of the Carters, while Garris Wimmer plays her husband Albert, a German-born carpenter, with surprising depth.
The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided. By A.S. Peterson. Original music composed by PatRick Thomas. Directed (and costume and scenic design) by Matt Logan. Musical director PatRick Thomas. Presented by Studio Tenn Theatre Company at the Jamison Theatre at The Factory at Franklin. Through September 22. For details, go to www.studiotenn.com. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show Studio Tenn returns to the roots of its Franklin, Tennessee, hometown with the reprise of The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided," back by popular demand for a September 7-22 run at the Jamison Theatre in the Factory at Franklin.
With the historic Carter house just minutes away, Middle Tennesseans are certain to feel a sense of time, place and history that permeates Franklin via the original production that chronicles the story of Tod Carter.
Matt Logan, Studio Tenn's artistic director, enlisted the expertise of writer A. S. Peterson to script the stage tale, seeking guidance from local historians to recreate the stirring performance piece.
"The Battle of Franklin presents audiences with an experience that history books can't quite provide," Logan maintains. "Whereas history tends to cater to the factual aspects of the past, theatre allows us to recreate and provide an emotionally driven, hands-on representation of what happened."
Logan explains that the return of The Battle of Franklin gives the city, local school districts and the greater Nashville community the opportunity to experience local history once more after the success of last season's sold-out performances.
"With its dramatic staging and powerful music, The Battle of Franklin helps people inside and outside our community understand why we work so hard to preserve what happened here," said Lynn McAlister from the Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County.
"Suddenly a 'history lesson' becomes reality," McAlister continues. "You not only know their names, but you feel their hopes, their dreams and their ambitions."
Returning to the Jamison Theatre stage for the 2017 iteration of The Battle of Franklin will be original cast members Matthew Rosenbaum, Matthew Carlton, Carrie Tillis, James Rudolph, Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, Garris Wimmer, PatRick Thomas and Matthew Rich, joined by new cast members Chrissy Berryessa and Jake Perotti.
"It's such an insanely talented group of friends who share this craft as a profession," says Carrie Tillis, who portrays Mary Alice McPhail, sister to Tod Carter. "It's so comforting to come together with like-minded people and I am always grateful spend this time with my 'other family.'"
This unique local work takes audiences back in time to witness "the tragic struggle between father and son, master and slave, and North and South - the perfect blend of history and theatricality." The Battle of Franklin presents more than mere history, according to a press release, "but the conflict in us all and our hope of restoration."
The Battle of Franklin: A Tale of a House Divided runs September 7-22 at the Jamison Theater in the Factory at Franklin. Tickets are available at www.studiotenn.com or by calling (615) 541-8200.