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Jim Leonard's Battle Hymn 

Brave new world

Wednesday, Jan 28 2009
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In Jim Leonard’s lovely new play, Battle Hymn, presented by Circle X Theatre Company at [Inside] the Ford, a 16-year-old woman named Martha (Suzy Jane Hunt) has an impetuous fling with her teenage schoolmate Henry (Bill Heck). It’s their first and only sexual encounter, and soon after he’s left their Kentucky town for service in the Union Army during the Civil War, Martha discovers that she’s pregnant with Henry’s child. Her own mother having died while giving birth to her, Martha’s only means of support is her minister father, Ambrose (William Salyers), in whom she now confides.

The word he might but doesn’t use to describe her behavior is “shameless,” because in Hunt’s wide-eyed and endearingly tempestuous portrayal of Martha, that’s exactly what she is, in the best sense of that word — an intuitive mystic cut from the mold of the 14-year-old water diviner in Leonard’s earlier play The Diviners. That character, Buddy Layman, is also without a mother. In fact, he had watched her drown, a trauma that left him with phobia of water and, at the same time, a gift for divining it from deep underground. In a drought and a depression, during which The Diviners is set, that’s a useful gift, and the play turns on the gifted boy’s interaction with an itinerant and wayward minister who wanders into Layman’s Indiana farm town.

In Battle Hymn, Leonard has spun the duality of the haunted child prophet and the wounded minister into a new shape, within a new context, but the traces that remain are the travels and travails of innocents in a world steeped in violence and metaphysical cruelty. This makes Battle Hymn part of a continuing legacy of innocents overwhelmed, probably established by Voltaire, scooped up by Mark Twain and then carried into the American theater by Thornton Wilder and William Inge. To make a long play short, Martha remains pregnant for 150 years, waiting for the right time to bring a child into this world, eventually landing in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district during the Summer of Love, and running into the oblivious reincarnation of Henry. (Wilder’s similarly allegorical The Skin of Our Teeth follows a suburban American family through the ages, from the Ice Age forward.)

click to enlarge ROSS MACKENZIE - Battle Hymn: Into the eyes of betrayal
  • Ross MacKenzie
  • Battle Hymn: Into the eyes of betrayal

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Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell once remarked that those who hold the metaphor hold the power — an insight that gives some heft to the influence of poets and playwrights, as well as politicians who know how to work metaphors. The lack of that skill is largely the cause of the 43rd president’s downfall and the source of the 44th’s rise. Barack Obama’s power has come from his ability to redefine the metaphor of an America that acts in accordance with its glorious founding documents, an America that governs by the luminous principles of equal opportunity, fairness and transparency. The world is eagerly watching the new president restore a legend that was always only partly true — as Japanese internment camps, anti-Communist witch hunts and clandestine invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua have demonstrated. The metaphor that holds sway, however, is that of an evolving legend, a black man taking the oath of president on what were slave-trading grounds more than two centuries earlier. He then closes Guantanamo Bay and an international network of secret prisons within days of taking office. The world weeps for joy. America, the moral light of the world, has risen from the ashes of her own self-destruction. Mine eyes have seen the glory.

The metaphor is largely nonsense, factually speaking, but it also casts a light onto the brighter possibilities of tomorrow, and that’s exactly what Twain, Wilder and Leonard accomplish in their allegorical and sometimes satirical novels and plays.

In Obama’s Inaugural address, he argued that we are all responsible for our nation’s current malaise, because of our collective inability to make necessarily difficult decisions. Perhaps he’s referring to the suckers who didn’t read the fine print in their zero-down mortgages; hard to tell. But “responsibility” is the new/old metaphor (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country ...”), so the facts don’t really matter.

In Battle Hymn, somewhere on the cusp of the 21st century, Martha learns that the fetus she’s been carrying for a century and a half — waiting for “the right time” to allow it entry into the world — is actually herself. Some local critics have suggested that this means we’re all responsible for ourselves, in which case, Leonard is clearly speaking Obama’s language. I didn’t infer that “lesson” from Leonard’s metaphor. I didn’t infer any lesson at all. I did absorb the image of a woman giving birth to herself, or rebirth. Rebirth of a nation. The play’s opening on the heels of the presidential Inauguration couldn’t have been better timed.

John Langs has staged a ravishing production with an appealing ensemble of five (including John Short and Robert Manning), almost all playing multiple roles, some in drag and some in bovine attire. (Yes, it’s a fantasia.) Martha’s first crisis is realizing that the love of her life has fallen for another fella (Manning) — in this production, an African-American. Martha learns this by stumbling into an army camp, where they’re all garroted for their sundry offenses before being hanged at dawn. And so homophobia is stirred right into the brew with the racism underlying the Civil War.

Act 1 dwells for some time on the Civil War era before Act 2 goes into overdrive, racing through history, throwing allegories like peppercorns into a swiftly boiling soup. Perhaps they spice up the brew, but their effect doesn’t linger, as in Act 1. There would be a stronger sense of proportion, and perhaps gravitas, if Act 2 simply resumed with a perplexed Martha, still pregnant, in the Summer of Love.

A few scenes are punctuated by Michael A. Levine’s original score, which embellishes the history with a cinematic romanticism. This would run the risk of being sappy were the play, and its treatment in Langs’ capable hands, not so animated to the point of being deliberately goofy at times. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s handsome set includes an upstage wall of slatted wood. In the evening scenes, twinklings of light appear through the gaps and holes, creating a star scape, and underscoring the cosmic scale of our great American work in progress.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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