Babes in Armies
Great American History Theatre
Eleanor Roosevelt: Excursions
FOUR HUNDRED WOMEN fought in the Civil War, disguised as men. They marched until their shoes shredded and they fired guns and they died. Some were discovered after sustaining wounds on the battlefield. Six were discharged after giving birth. One of those 400, Francis Clayton, from St. Paul, is the subject of Beth Gilleland's Civil Ceremony, premiering at the Great American History Theatre.
History, as the adage goes, is written by the winners. But the battle of the sexes has long been a lopsided affair, and history-wise, women have been driven below the footnotes and out of the margins. While the number of women in the Civil War might be statistically insignificant--as many albinos could have served--Civil Ceremony describes the significance of the resistance to gender expectations. Recognizing the attendant risks of anachronism, Gilleland assigns her stump speeches to a present-day battlefield reenactor who lays out the basics. How did women pass the physical? How did women pass as men? The dramatic function of these details is a little less obvious than the mystery over who's buried in Grant's tomb. But Gilleland is resourceful; she applies the ingenuity of an artist to the mission of a progressive junior high teacher. In smart scenes, the script shifts from the past to the present and back again. Nurses, war widows, prostitutes, lady spies. So many women, so little time.
As such, the story of Francis Clayton must fight for attention; like the Confederacy, it's ultimately a losing cause. The plot in brief, then: Clayton combines the martial with the marital, following her husband John into the army. She learns how to smoke a pipe like a man. No one discovers her secret. Irony drips as a fellow soldier asks that Francis, a swell fella, take care of his wife "if something should ever happen to me." "Nothing is going to happen to you," Francis says. He is, by those words, a dead man.
But the red badge of courage is just one of a soldier's many trials. With well-researched detail, Gilleland proposes that war is not just hell in the big picture, but damn miserable in any snapshot. And so the troops sweat in summer in their stinking wool greatcoats, then shiver come winter after they've been shed. War, we learn, is dysentery and high piles of amputated limbs. Incomplete remains and shallow mass graves. We learn statistics and we learn specifics. We learn.
Yet, at the end of the play, Francis still describes these soldiering days as her best; even the constraints of gender subterfuge are looser binds than those of the Victorian corset. We witness a battle charge--the interminable approach and bloody consequences--in stream-of-consciousness: I am running, I am running, I am running. Women had progressed as far as they would in the military for another century. Francis salutes and hobbles offstage. Although Civil Ceremony is sometimes too didactic and disjointed to be fully satisfying, Beth Gilleland should be saluted for a job well done.
Eleanor Roosevelt: Excursions, premiering at the Jungle Theater, also chronicles a widely unknown history--Eleanor's early emotional life around the time of the Great War--though it replaces hurried rhetoric with a languorous character study. Adapted by Rhoda Lerman from her 1979 historical novel, Excursions is set on a dock outside the Roosevelts' New Brunswick vacation home. On a bench beside a bucket of shells, Eleanor reflects on her unhappy youth, as Franklin, newly paralyzed, is rowed to the mainland in the back of a boat. Her parents died young, with madness in the genes; Eleanor's had nightmares, shingles, and constipation ever since. She is too tall, too skinny, sexless. She feels unable to find her place vicariously through Franklin and the children, and undergoes a deep depression after discovering his infidelity during the war. She mourns her own life over the trenches of the dead in France.
Actor Claudia Wilkens has the demanding task of going solo as Eleanor, accompanied only by the lapping of the waves and the groaning of the docks. Wilkens's likeness to former First Lady Roosevelt is remarkable; her restrained delivery over two hours is often hypnotizing. There is real artistry here. At its best, the play recalls the poetry of a similar island story of inner vicissitudes: Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. As a threnody to self, before renewal, the script is gorgeous in its greater design. Yet I would be lying if I didn't concede that, minute-to-minute, the thing could anesthetize an insomniac. Wilkens speaks slowly... so slowly... and the stage is so dark, and the waves so lulling... By the second act I'd become intimately acquainted with the gastric gurgling of the woman next to me... and... well, one sometimes wishes Eleanor would just take that long walk off the short pier. CP
Civil Ceremony runs through March 31; call 292-4323. Eleanor Roosevelt: Excursions runs through May 26; call 822-7063.
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