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There are few things quite as dispiriting to a serious playgoer as being measurably well ahead of a playwright. In the case of Sharon Talbot's 75-minute Civil War two-hander, A Field of Glory, now receiving its North Carolina premiere as part of Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, the drama's "surprise ending" arrives a good 60 minutes late.
Without spoiling the denouement for the uninitiated, A Field of Glory is comprised of a duologue between Rosalia, a Mississippi plantation matriarch, and her soldier son John, in the spring of 1862, when the Confederacy had been given good reason to feel optimistic about the outcome of its conflict with the Union. The pair expresses its love, disapproval at each other's ideals, and scarcely buried loathing in rapid succession. Too rapid, as the emotions come pouring forth seemingly from nowhere, even allowing for the play's illusory structure.
As Rosalia is portrayed by the author, and since the play has been staged by her sister, one can only assume that the pace arrived at is what was wanted. But it's too pell-mell for even those few slivers of reality that do manage to creep in to have much effect. Neither Talbot nor Jesse Janowsky, who portrays John, gives a performance that registers deeper than surface level, and the emotional high points are largely un-prepared for. There is no sub-text here, only text. And that itself is a small thing merely, alternately undernourished and overdone.
As a playwright, Talbot throws off the occasional compelling line ("I don't lie," says Rosalia. "I tell the truth as it should be"), but the revelations come as if by time clock, and the gulf between familial love and hate is all too often bridged in unmotivated leaps. I hesitate to use the word
"gimmick" to describe the piece, as I've no doubt Talbot and her collaborators are sincere, but A Field of Glory is built on, and moves toward, that Ultimate Revelation so dogged a fashion its illusions, intriguing in context, seem wholly formulaic in retrospect. Worse, the author indulges, more than once, in that carnal sin against effective dramaturgy, one character telling another what both already know, for the benefit of the audience.
Then, too, some of Rosalia's confessions strike one as unlikely — this is the South, after all, in the mid-19th century. And John is her son. And Rosalia, whatever her tics and idiosyncrasies, is a gentlewoman. The "Gothic" strains here feel, in their direct expression, less Edwin Booth than Tennessee Williams. This may be part of the illusion, but I suspect it's unintentional.
The costumes by A. Christina Giannini are serviceable for John, less reliable for Rosalia. Chris Bernier's set, a kind of hothouse garden going to seed, is both fulsomely realistic in its arbor, beds of tulips and stalks of sunflower, and weirdly artificial in its backdrop. Is that moss hanging fore and aft, or shredded burlap? Bernier's lighting is effective, however, giving the gradual impression of a day's light spending itself from morning to dusk.
Under Lynne Taylor-Corbett's direction, Talbot and Janowsky seldom pause for effect, or to time an emotional transition. Although Talbot digs somewhat deeper, both she and her young co-star range from stagy gestures to a casualness that does not prepare for the larger emotions. The sisters do create a rather moving pieta near the climax, but how touching you find it may depend in direct ratio to whether you've reached the finish ahead of the play.
This show continues through July 31. For details, see the sidebar.