Absorbing in its intricate construction, stirring in its lyrical language, Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars” boldly summons Homer’s Greek epic poem “The Odyssey” in the Civil War-era South. The characters of Hero (later renamed Ulysses), Penny (as in Penelope) and Homer (let alone the members of a symbolic Greek chorus) are now a group of “less-than-desirable” slaves — contemplating the causes of life and the value of identity, fundamental matters of duty and sacrifice and, above all, freedom.
But don’t be daunted by that imposing dramatic conceit, or by Parks’ truly epic scope: Parenthetically subtitled “Parts 1, 2 & 3,” the play runs roughly three hours in length (including two intermissions). Take it from me that any avid theatergoer worth his or her salt has endured many a one-act show that seemed much longer, and proved to be much less rewarding. In Charlotte, N.C.-based director Martin Damien Wilkins’ fluid and exhilarating production for Actor’s Express, time flies with a fascinating precision that seldom lags or wavers.
In the first part (“A Measure of a Man”), we meet our so-called Hero (Evan Cleaver), who has been given the “choice” to join his “boss-master” in battle, fighting for the Confederate army in exchange for his freedom. As the other slaves await the break of a fateful day of reckoning, waging bets and “making sport” of his dilemma, the conflicted Hero struggles to reach a decision, weighing the prospective means against an uncertain end.
The second part (“A Battle in the Wilderness”) introduces us to Hero’s “master” (Bryan Davis), a Rebel colonel, and his wounded prisoner (Richard McDonald), a Yankee captain with the colored infantry. They debate the not-so-subtle distinctions between owning slaves and commanding them, between the financial worth of black lives and their basic rights and needs as human beings. Later, Hero and the Union soldier gradually discover a mutual kinship.
Part three (“The Union of My Confederate Parts”) depicts the homecoming of Hero, who returns a changed man in more ways than one. Now known as Ulysses, he finds in Homer (Marcus Hopkins-Turner) a rival for the affections of his beloved Penny (Brittany Inge). As the sun sets, the others plan a run for their freedom, eventually leaving him to stew in a mess of his own devices — with only a talking dog, the aptly named Odyssey (Jason-Jamal Ligon), to keep him company.
The role of that nonsensical canine is a major misstep in Parks’ otherwise naturally powerful and honestly felt play. In addition to the highly resourceful turns by Davis and McDonald, director Wilkins also elicits discerning performances from Rob Cleveland (as a father figure to Hero) and Seun Soyemi, Damian Lockhart and Meagan Dilworth (among the chorus of slaves).
Cleaver, an undeniably talented actor, has a decidedly difficult task in portraying the morally ambiguous, ultimately flawed and hardly heroic protagonist of the piece. His characterization is mostly quite perceptive and skillfully shaded, although he has a tendency to rush a lot of his dialogue, to garbled effect.
Notwithstanding the show’s length, a slower and more deliberate approach on his part might have worked even greater wonders.
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“Father Comes Home From the Wars”
Through June 11. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $21.60-$37.80. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469, www.actors-express.com.
Bottom line: Long and demanding, but engrossing and worthwhile.