Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
Dazzling language, delicious dialogue and a bit of intellectual and historical swashbuckling add up to one of the best new plays seen this season.
Add to those descriptors a well-paced, derring-do story that’s mostly true, glorious performances, brilliant direction, and the sum total is Tim Burns’ fascinating “Faded Glory,” playing in its world premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre through June 22.
In 1973, after reading a Sickles’ biography, Burns wrote and received an NEA award for this, his first play. “Faded Glory” itself quickly faded in lieu of his burgeoning career as a television writer. The work lay fallow until discovered by North Coast Repertory Artistic Director David Ellenstein.
The only things faded are the decorations that adorn Union Army Major-General Daniel Sickles’ uniform, prominently displayed on a dressmaker’s form in his New York City home circa 1914. In real life, it is the year of the general’s death, but his fire is undiminished, even though we find him in a wheelchair. Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg and was awarded the Medal of Honor, which was later withdrawn because he shot and killed his wife’s lover. Even though Sickles got off on temporary insanity, the medal was still withheld.
As the play begins, the irascible general (Andrew Barnicle) and his caretaker, Eleanor Wilmerding (Shana Wride, perfectly cast heart of the production), await the arrival of a portraitist and news of the ceremony at which the medal will be bestowed. The uniform still fits, and so does most everything else about the amazing tale, rife with juicy situations and unexpected characters. Biographers may debate the details, but the play is a humdinger.
Sickles is trying to avoid his Spanish wife, whom he has not seen for 37 years. She was a handmaid to Queen Isabella II (both ladies of Spain are played by Frances Anita Rivera) to whom he had embassy and with whom he had an affair. His failed mission was to obtain Cuba for the U.S. Unknown to Sickles, he gained something else.
Actor Bruce Turk, fondly remembered from Darko Tresnjak-directed Old Globe Shakespeare Festivals, is stunning as actor John Barrymore. One of life’s joys is Turk’s pronunciation of the words “petulant lips” and his description of a Barrymore entrance: “The audience would hear my balls clack.” Barrymore is a drinking buddy of Wilmerding’s carousing cousin, Frank Butler (played by Ben Cole, also adept in two additional roles). Rachael Van Wormer plays two characters, most hilariously the proto-feminist portraitist Lenott Parlaghy, who has a stunning concept of rape prevention (costumes by Sonia Elizabeth Lerner).
To take a romp through Sickles’ extraordinary and controversial life could be a slog. In Burns’ capable hands it is never less than mesmerizing, unfolding naturally through the dialogue of Sickles and Wilmerding. Their affection, as played by Barnicle and Wride, is so convincingly deep that the implausible yet factual play is upheld. Other contributors are scenic designer Marty Burnett, lighting designer Matt Novotny, sound designer Melanie Chen, props designer Ben Cole and hair and wig designer Peter Herman.