Sunday, October 12, 2008

“Bleeding Kansas”: Another MOXIE Triumph


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

MOXIE Theatre’s new production, Kathryn Walat’s Bleeding Kansas, vividly dramatizes a little-known part of American history: the dress rehearsal for the Civil War that took place in the mid-1850’s in the newly organized territory of Kansas. Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois), hungry for the presidency and anxious to come up with a compromise on slavery that would satisfy both the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party, pushed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress in 1854. The bill divided the Nebraska Territory into two halves, Nebraska and Kansas, and said that they would become either free or slave states depending on how their residents voted. It also repealed the Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820, which had restricted slavery’s expansion north of a specified line (36° 30’ latitude) and which many Northerners — including a little-known Illinois railroad lawyer and one-term Congressmember named Abraham Lincoln — believed had settled the question of slavery once and for all.

Douglas justified the Kansas-Nebraska Act on what he called “the Great Principle of Popular Sovereignty.” His opponents ridiculed it as “squatter sovereignty” and predicted that it would lead to both sides in the slavery debate “packing” the new territories with their own partisans and fighting the free vs. slave battle not with ballots, but with knives and guns. They were right. Organized by Missouri Senator David Atchison, gangs of armed Missouri whites — called “border ruffians,” first by their opponents and then by themselves — charged across the border into Kansas to stake out the territory for slavery. White Northern “free-soilers” responded by smuggling out letters describing the carnage being wreaked upon them by Missouri’s invaders, and ultimately they took up arms themselves. Anti-slavery activist John Brown, whose adult sons had already settled in Kansas, became convinced by the attacks on free-soilers there that nonviolent resistance to the slave power was futile and only violence could dislodge the slave power. Brown came to Kansas himself, and he and his family brutally put their principles into action.

Both Atchison and Brown appear as on-stage characters in Bleeding Kansas — the title is how the Kansas massacres were described in newspapers at the time — but the focus is on a handful of fictional characters caught up in the maelstrom. Hannah Rose Allen (Jennifer Eve Thorn) is an abolitionist schoolteacher from New England who comes to Kansas to support the anti-slavery campaign (even though, as a woman, she can’t vote) and teach once the dust settles and schools can open. Kittson “Kitty” Clarke (Jo Anne Glover) is the wife of free-soil farmer George Clarke (David S. Humphrey); grief-stricken by the death of their daughter Flora, they have moved from Indiana to Kansas not to be part of a great political struggle but simply to claim and work a farm. Edwin Redpath (Christopher Buess) is a border ruffian who comes to fight for slavery but also develops a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet attachment to Hannah Rose. Josiah Nichols (Mark Petrich) is a fellow farmer and a neighbor of the Clarkes; he’s a Missourian and therefore pro-slavery but, like the Clarkes on the other side, he isn’t militant about it.

Walat’s script occasionally falls into the didacticism that’s the trap of political playwrights, and it’s hard to believe that anybody in the U.S. outside a college faculty was as literate in the 1850’s as Hannah Rose appears in her letters to her sister Abigail (which she delivers as soliloquies during the play), but for the most part she’s written a tough, moving drama that vividly brings home the anguish of ordinary citizens caught up in someone else’s war. It’s Kansas in the 1850’s but it could be Bosnia, Kosovo or Rwanda in the 1990’s or Iraq today. MOXIE is presenting this as an election-themed play — it closes November 2, two days before the final vote, and is advertised as “one play you MUST see before Election Day!” — but the issues it raises are broader than that: whether anyone is truly “innocent” in a war zone, whether violence is ever an acceptable means to settle a political conflict, and above all the tragedy of people who just want to do their jobs, bring their crops in and raise their families in the middle of people who want to kill them for reasons of “principle.”

MOXIE’s artistic director, Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, directed this production. She grabs hold of Walat’s script and produces a high-tension staging that maintains the necessary intensity throughout. She and George Yé, credited in the program with “combat,” are especially good at the action scenes; when various characters emerge battered and bloodied, you believe it. The leads, Thorn and Glover — two of the women who co-founded MOXIE with Sonnenberg — deliver tough, no-nonsense performances. Thorn, though confronted with the preachiest dialogue in Walat’s play, delivers the proper air of self-assurance as well as the pompousness all too common in real-life ideologues. Glover is even better: playing a woman whose life has already been wrenched apart by the death of her daughter and will soon be tried even more traumatically, she turns in a gripping performance as the anxious, edgy woman overwhelmed by circumstances and determined to fight back.

The men are almost as good. David S. Humphrey (the only Actors’ Equity member in the cast) is tall, handsome (even in the unflattering 19th century costumes) and a bit gawky, and perfectly communicates the good-natured gentleness and ineffectuality of a man who doesn’t know the first thing about farming and, though he’s against slavery, shares the racism of the Southerners and doesn’t want any Black people, slave or free, in the state. (This is historically accurate; when Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state in 1861, the state constitution barred free Blacks from emigrating to the state and all Blacks from voting.) Christopher Buess gives most of his performance with his body language, literally and figuratively swaying back and forth between his pro-slavery convictions and his growing attractions to Hannah Rose. Mark Petrich as Josiah is well cast as yet another ordinary character whose love and gentleness shine through even though he believes (purely intellectually, since he doesn’t own slaves and could never afford to) in the South’s disgusting “peculiar institution.”

Scenic designer Jerry Sonnenberg (the director’s husband) gives us an enviably solid-looking set consisting of a well-constructed log cabin -— though not so well-constructed that we can’t believe it when the characters complain that wind blows through the cracks between the logs — a floor of actual soil and a large painted backdrop representing an expanse of sky. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes look credible as mid-19th century wear and Amy Chini’s props contain only one obvious anachronism: the modern-day cans the characters use as drinking cups. Jason Connors is credited with composition and sound design; most of the music is the rather scratchy-sounding fiddle playing that famously accompanied Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary, though the only player credited is cellist Erica Erenyi. Lighting designer Jason Bleber isn’t afraid to make the lights bright when they should be, and he’s good at using spots to isolate the important action on stage.

MOXIE’s mission is to present plays with powerful, non-traditional views of women, and as in their previous productions they’ve achieved that big-time here. The final image (reproduced in the poster) of Thorn and Glover, sleeping on the same pallet, back to front, each with a rifle, is itself a chilling summation not only of the play’s theme but also of how being in the middle of a combat zone has changed their characters. Bleeding Kansas is a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking drama that grabs the emotions. Its story offers plenty of parallels to present-day political and ethical issues (in the intermission many audience members were talking more about the current financial crisis and the upcoming election than they were about the play itself) but it doesn’t hit us over the head with them. Its characters aren’t Brechtian archetypes but believable flesh-and-blood human beings for whom we root and with whom we suffer. Kathryn Walat has delivered a powerful play, and MOXIE has done it full justice in its production. It’s not just a must-see before the election; it would be a must-see any time.

MOXIE Theatre’s production of Kathryn Walat’s Bleeding Kansas runs through Sunday, November 2 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Performances are 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun. The Thurs., Oct. 16 and Fri., Oct. 17 performances are low-priced “pay what you can” previews. To purchase tickets, or for more information, call (619) 275-0332 or visit