BWW Review: CIVIL WAR VOICES at Walnut Street Theatre
After climbing the back stairs to the third floor, I entered the intimate Independence Studio, dressed to look like an attic in a historic home. Though I had been there before, that night, it felt different. There were some secrets hiding here.
As I took my seat in one of many mismatched antique chairs and sofas, I felt eager to discover some little-told stories of heroism, love and loss during Walnut Street Theatre's Civil War Voices.
The show centers around the histories of well-known Civil War characters, including Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and Joshua Chamberlain and some hidden experiences of former slave Elizabeth Keckley, plantain owner Joseph Harris and lovers Harriet and Theo Perry.
Their true stories, told from perspectives gathered from letters and diaries, are presented in vignette form. Between the narrative, the cast performs mid 19th century tunes, playing period instruments while singing along and inviting audience interaction.
The concept for this production sounds really innovative and patriotic, but the script does not bring this to fruition. The vignette style is hard to follow, and many of the stories are not as interesting as they seem at first glance.
The story of Elizabeth Keckley is an exception and could have stood alone. She was a former slave who bought her freedom from Jefferson Davis and went on to become a seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln. The miraculous nature of her story is even more so convincing as she is played by Jessica Johnson, who wows with her commitment to the role and powerful riffs.
The rest of the cast brings the energy, but blurs the lines of comedy and drama in a way that's messy. Many of the jokes don't hit. Walnut veteran Laura Giknis does her best to create unique characters in the many roles she plays. Though this is admirable, her innovation often came off as confusing. It was difficult to understand why her character was acting one way, when the words she was saying suggested she felt another.
That being said, the Walnut presented a truly exciting production design which did its best to counteract the messy storyline. The intimate, dusty attic setting brought the audience into these characters' stories. The actor-musician combination made every song feel like everyone in the room was participating in a Civil War campfire jamboree.