Review by Judith Robinson
Father Comes Home from The Wars (Parts I, II, III) – three short plays in a three-hour production – explores betrayal, bigotry and the fight for freedom during the American Civil War. Soulpepper’s production of Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ work is gutsy, moving and risk-taking. The energy peaks in the second section entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness” when Dion Johnstone, as Hero, the central character on a journey, loosely fashioned after Homer’s Odyssey, becomes lost in the wilderness in the midst of a Civil War dispute. Hero has chosen to follow his master; Photo courtesy of Cylla von Tiedemann
a psychopathic Texas colonel, stunningly portrayed by Oliver Dennis, into the Confederate army under the dubious promise that he will be given his freedom after the war.
Hero knows he should be fighting for the Union forces who intend to free all slaves. His confusion is heightened when he finds out that their wounded prisoner, Union Private Smith, played by Gregory Prest, is mixed-race. When the Colonel leaves to survey the battle, Smith begs Hero to come and join the Union. Hero struggles to decide, and in the end can’t make the mental shift from slave to free man – even though the coast is clear. Why does Hero stay when he clearly has a chance to leave? This question kept the audience members on the edge of their seats – wishing for Hero to choose freedom – yet somehow knowing he wouldn’t – or couldn’t.
The tension in the scene where the colonel maniacally pronounces his bigotry and spews venom across the stage is riveting. Prest’s anguish is authentic and true to life as he listens, in a makeshift wooden cage, to the colonel’s condemnation of his race and values. And Johnstone’s inner turmoil, throughout the piece, is palpable.
Wonderful music softened the blow of the melancholy message. Divine Brown’s soulful voice created a cushioned transition between scenes. And even the colonel’s hillbilly banjo picking elevated the mood. Peter Fernandes as the energetic Odyssey Dog, interjected some humour into the third section, “The Union of My Confederate Parts”.This drama is full of questions and few answers. The proclamation of emancipation, carried home to the plantation by Hero after the war, never gets read. The implication is that it will never be fully enforced. Slavery has morphed into other forms. The American slave masters are still extracting their pounds of flesh. This play packs a powerful punch. Don’t miss it.
Father Comes Home from the Wars is playing at Soulpepper’s Young Centre until August 27th.