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BWW Reviews: FADED GLORY Sparkles at North Coast Rep

It's no wonder that actor, playwright and screenwriter Tim Burns won the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award in 1974 for his first play, Faded Glory. Based on the true story of little known but uniquely fascinating Civil War Major-General Daniel Edgar Sickles, this brilliantly crafted work, which received its world premiere on Sat. May 31, at North Coast Rep, is entertaining, enlightening, and irresistible.

The playwright's witty dialogue draws in the audience and keeps them guffawing from the very first words of verbal ping-pong lobbed between the two skillfully played, empathetic protagonists until the final sweet phrases spoken between them. Burns then weaves in a cast of four additional actors, all of whom would be scene-stealers individually if not for their virtuosic ensemble work, most of them playing multiple characters. The result is a wild ride of droll turns of phrase and cynical barbs punctuated by perfectly timed comic buttons. These actors are never in danger of being six characters in search of an author: the playwright has created a seamless fabric of scintillating comic conversation and Machiavellian plot twists that keep the actors - and the audience - on their toes. The dialogue is so skillfully written and acted that I found myself longing to hear most of the lines more than once.

Heading this cluster of gifted performers was Andrew Barnicle, who has shown his multifaceted acting talents in feature films, on television and on the stage, and recently demonstrated his directing expertise helming Who Am I This Time? at North Coast Rep. As the rabble-rousing General Sickles, who created history on the battlefield and in the courtroom - he created a precedent by claiming temporary insanity to defend himself in a murder indictment - Barnicle spat his cynical lines with effortless conviction, his delivery as dry and sardonic as leaves crackling underfoot on a late autumn walk through Central Park. Surrounded as he was by vibrantly played characters, Barnicle nonetheless remained the center of interest: the sun around whom the other twinkling planets revolved.

As Barnicle's long-suffering nursemaid, confidante, confessor and caretaker Eleanor Wilmerding, Shana Wride gave Barnicle a run for his money in the attention department. Alternating between droll deadpan and acerbic sarcasm in her approach, she spun off each clever line with perfect timing, gathered and maintained momentum and empathy with every turn of phrase, and never once faltered in conveying her deep belief in herself and her fondness for and devotion to Sickles.

Just when these two characters had established what seems an indissoluble bond, Bruce Turk burst upon the scene - literally - as the maddeningly charming, fervently alcoholic John Barrymore, and threw a well-placed wrench into their chaotic but carefully constructed domestic situation. Turk fearlessly plunged into the difficult task of convincingly playing a famous actor by interpreting Barrymore with searing honesty and deft physicality. In short, he was mesmerizing.

The other actors took on their multiple roles with dexterity, and created winning portrayals of their characters. Rachel VanWormer as portrait artist and suffragist Lenott Parlaghy adroitly displayed both a hard-as-nails exterior and an appealingly soft core, the latter of which she effectively revealed in a flashback playing Sickles's vulnerable ex-wife Theresa. Benjamin Cole alternated between the roles of Barrymore's sidekick and hopeless Sickles relative Frank Butler, Young Sickles, and Father Ignacio (no spoiler alert about his real identity here) with engaging charm, and succeeded in making each of the three characters uniquely memorable. Frances Anita Rivera steamed up the stage with her portrayals of the two Sickles nemeses, his ex-lover Queen Isabella II of Spain and his ex-wife, the Queen's lady-in-waiting, "Il Condesa." Rivera brimmed with sensuality, fiery temperament and irrationality: precisely the characteristics that have made Spanish women so intriguing over the centuries.

Admittedly Director David Ellenstein had much to work with in this talented, well-chosen group of performers. Nonetheless he succeeded in creating a beautifully integrated chamber orchestra of actors, fashioned of individual virtuosi, which brought a finely wrought work of art to life with panache. Kudos as always to Marty Burnett, who scored another win with his authentically crafted unit set filled with meticulously researched period details.

Burns, an avowed Civil War history buff who happened across the true life character of Major-General Daniel Edgar Sickles during his studies of that all-important episode in American history, says that no sooner had he started reading about the fascinating Sickles he was "off and running" to start writing about Sickles's life. One hundred-fifty years after the Civil War, and a full forty-one years after Burns wrote Faded Glory, the story and its characters remain fascinating.

There's nothing faded about Glory: the production sparkles from top to bottom. North Coast Rep has a hit on their hands. Go see it. More than once.

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