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The Killer Angels
Mother Road Theatre Company

Also see Rob's review of Other Desert Cities and Sarah's review of The Hobbit

Killer Angels
Vic Browder and Peter Shea Kierst
The Killer Angels tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place during three the first three days of July 1863 and left an estimated 51,000 casualties. It was the largest battle in the Civil War, the largest battle on American soil, and it was the turning point in the war. While the struggle would continue for nearly two more years, the Confederate losses at the direction of General Robert E. Lee (Peter Shea Kierst) sent the South into a spiral of slow-motion defeat.

The book of the same name by Michael Shaara, published in 1975, was a novelization of the battle. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It also became a major influence on filmmaker Ken Burns who went on to create the PBS series on the Civil War that became the most successful documentary series in PBS history. The book was later turned into the 1993 movie Gettysburg and it was also adapted for the stage by Karen Tarjan in 2004. The stage debut took place at the Lifeline Theatre in Chicago.

The play—needless to say—differs greatly from the movie, simply because of cinema's ability to display the spectacle of a vast battlefield. The play is forced to focus on the relationships among officers in both the Union and Confederate armies. This tight focus on the tensions and conflicts among the armies' leaders as the battle intensifies is the heart of the play. With the spectacle stripped away, these conflicts gain an unusual clarity.

Lee wasn't well during the Battle of Gettysburg. This might help explain why he became so headstrong in the face of James Longstreet (Vic Browder) and other officers who pleaded with him to take a different course in the battle. In all the great battles Lee had previously won, the general had taken a defensive position and let the Union come charging across open ground. This time is was Lee who charged across open space toward a well-reinforced enemy. The result was a bloody loss.

Since the play can't show the thousands of soldiers in battle during Pickett's Charge, it shows instead the anguish on the faces of the officers as it becomes apparent the battle had turned into a useless bloodbath, and it shows Lee famously apologizing for his costly blunder.

I admit I had my doubts about how well a spectacular battle involving thousands upon thousands could be depicted inside the garage of a former filling station. The answer is that Karen Tarjan wrote a script that cuts to the core of the conflicts, doubts, and bravery of those who led their armies during those three days, and director Julia Thudium is able to bring the emotions to a precise pitch in this production.

Pickett's charge is the defining moment in the battle and in this play, but there were other highly dramatic moments as well. When the men under Lawrence Chamberlain (Justin Tade) ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain gave the order for his men to charge the Confederate attackers with fixed bayonets. You get the full picture of what Chamberlain's brave—and successful—decision meant.

Like many, I have read about this battle countless times, including plowing through Shelby Foote's 3,000-page tome, "Civil War." Yet this was the first time I could see clearly the psychological factors involved. Perhaps it's because the spectacle of thousands of charging men is not there to distract.

The actors deliver well in this production. It must be fun to play army men. Thudium does a good job keeping the action moving and getting to the heart of each player's challenge. The music takes on a life of its own in creating a sense of the 1860s. Particularly strong is the music performed by J.B. Tuttle in the role of narrator. The costumes and props are excellent, as is the staging. It is quite impressive to see the Battle of Gettysburg brought to life by a handful of actors inside the garage of a former filling station.

The Mother Road Theatre Company's The Killer Angels directed by Julia Thudium. Written by Karen Tarjan, and based on the novel by Michael Shaara. The production runs at The Filling Station, 1024 4th Street SW, through September 30. Performances run Thursday and Friday at 8:00, Saturday at 6:00, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. General admission is $18 or $12, for seniors (65, ID required) and students (ID required). Al tickets are $10 on Thursdays. For reservations, call 505-243-0596 or go to the website: www.motherroad.org.


Photo: John Maio

--Rob Spiegel



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