Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All a new play by Martin Tahse, based on the novel by Allan Gurganus. Directed by Don Scardino. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Wig & Hair design by Paul Huntley. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Ellen Burstyn.
There's a new battle being fought in town, and if it's not quite the Civil War, it's close enough. The battleground is the stage of the Longacre Theatre, and the combatants are one excellent actress (Ellen Burstyn) and a merely okay play, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Luckily, it looks like Burstyn is the one to emerge victorious.
This isn't another Golda's Balcony, perfectly matching material and star. Martin Tahse's stage adaptation is competent as far as competent goes, hitting most of the major points of Allan Gurganus's best-selling 1989 novel in a little over two hours, tightening up a few things here and there, but never particularly justifying the play as a necessary stage entity.
That's where Burstyn comes in. The worst that can be said about her performance is that she never exactly looks or behaves quite like a woman in her mid-to-late-90s. The 70-year-old Burstyn, whether hobbling on a cane or sitting in a wheelchair, often has a difficult time legitimately passing for 60! There's nothing wrong with Angelina Avallone's makeup, Paul Huntley's wig and hair design, or Jane Greenwood's costumes - they all hit their marks. Burstyn is just energetic enough to defeat them all.
That's something of a loss, because Lucy Marsden (the "last living veteran of the last living veteran") needs to possess the air of a woman who has etched into her memory everything she has seen and been told over the course of her life. That's the conceit for the play, after all: Lucy is appearing as a fund-raising event for her nursing home, Lanes' End, charged with sharing her many stories with the audience.
But as soon as Burstyn begins telling Lucy's stories, any real doubts about her suitability for the role fade away. Burstyn gets just about everything right, down to the (important) detail of presenting those in Lucy's life not as people here and now, but Lucy's interpretations of how they sounded and behaved. Every one has a similar sort of voice and is defined by gestures or stances that seem to have been conjured up by a woman with no formal acting experience.
But because of Burstyn's consummate talent and professionalism, those characters never suffer from a lack of feeling and definition, whether her husband, Captain Willie "Cap" Marsden, a lecherous man tortured by memories of his own failings during the Civil War whom she married at 15 (he was in his early 50s), or their black servant, taken from Africa as part of the slave trade and fated to play a major role in both the life of Lucy and her husband. Burstyn relates Lucy's many tales with the relish of a natural-born (not trained) storyteller ("Stories only happen to people who can tell 'em"), from the terror of her wedding night to her son's loss of sight in a tragic accident.
Through her stories, Lucy makes it obvious that her goal is not to detail the real Civil War, or even the war between the sexes, though those are the two overriding subjects of her story. Lucy is most concerned with preserving the memory of the people, places, and events that have affected her life by passing them on to others, who may themselves recall and relate them, keeping them forever alive. This realization striking is the play's most vividly theatrical moment as theatre itself, the most ephemeral of art forms, eventually lives only in the memories or writings of those who were there.
Tahse touches on this only slightly, but Scardino is intent on embracing a more literal journey into Lucy's memory, using projections (nicely designed by Wendall K. Harrington) and fancy lighting effects (courtesy of Kenneth Posner) to establish locations and add some visual excitement. The technique is moderately effective, but seems a bit too much - would the people at Lanes' End pay for special lighting to depict the burning of Mama Marsden's plantation? The concept gets a bit lost here. At least Allen Moyer's set doesn't give into temptation; it's a cinderblock rec room that provides a fine blank and institutional canvas on which Lucy can paint her pictures.
But those pictures might not always be as impressive as they are here - Tahse's play might well suffer with less-experienced performers who can't find all the layers necessary to summarize eight or nine decades' events in just a handful of words. As it is, the play too often threatens to grind to a halt whenever a half-formed joke or too-obvious anecdote stays in primary focus for too long.
But as long as Burstyn sticks with Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, it's worth seeing, and the fine work she does is almost enough to encourage one to relate the stories Lucy does. More likely, you'll just want to pass along how Burstyn triumphs over a so-so script by giving an excellent, truly memorable performance. You'll have plenty of those stories to choose from.