If the robust “Cold Harbor” — the first of John Guare’s three plays with a central character named Lydie Breeze — is an indication, audiences who see the entire cycle are in for a wild ride.
The first play alone, which opened this past weekend, is an epic, set during the Civil War. EgoPo Classic Theater stages it in and around a large open playing space that becomes a battlefield, a ship, a farm, even a Nantucket beach. The underlying force here — both in Guare’s play and the gripping production from EgoPo artistic director Lane Savadove, is storytelling.
And what a tale. The brave, young Lydie Breeze nurses Union soldiers on the blood-soaked battlefields at Cold Harbor, Va. She has few supplies and no medicines. But she’ll do whatever she can to get them. That quest — and that simple storyline — becomes a journey that takes us from Cape Cod to Cuba (not in a straight line) and through a sterling night of theater.
The notion that history must be known and understood in order to move forward percolates through the play. Lydie takes constant notes like a journalist on a story — her own story, in this case, which mirrors the story of a nation at war with itself. Neither Lydie nor her companions — a photographer (Charlie DelMarcelle) documenting the war for a Quaker group, his helper (Ed Swidey), and the chief of supplies on a ship (David Girard) — share different goals as they set out together. But their goals begin melding into a common one, just like the nation’s must in order to survive.
Lydie Breeze is played perfectly by Melanie Julian, who gives the character a nuanced mix of determination and self-doubt. The doubt begins to dissipate as she understands that her gut is generally her best guide in a world where no one has the luxury of weighing all sides. She also has the love of her father, a whaling ship captain (Mark Knight), to inspire her. And in a strange way, one of his ship workers (Jahzeer Terrell) becomes a guardian angel. The young black worker has saved another piece of recorded history that will figure large in Lydie’s life
Savadove’s staging, on Markéta Fantová’s set of wooden flooring with a beach at the front, is remarkably uncluttered for a show with a large cast – at the curtain-call, I counted 21 excellent performers, including an ensemble that sings original incidental compositions by Jay Ansill and Cynthia Hopkins. Guare’s script for “Cold Harbor” has the flow of a rich movie with quick cuts. Savadove’s direction, aided by Mike Inwood’s lighting and Marie Anne Chiment’s costumes, enhances that intricate script with a fluid theatricality.
You probably know something of Guare’s works — among them, he wrote the screenplay for “Atlantic City,” and his “Six Degrees of Separation” received a snappy revival on Broadway last season. He wrote the Lydie Breeze trilogy in the early ’80s, and all three plays have never been done together — until now.
Savadove worked with Guare at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis as associate director of one of his plays, and in that role read Guare’s works. Savadove says that when he read the Lydie Breeze plays, he thought he’d discovered buried treasure. He decided to devote Ego Po’s entire season to these works that take their central character into the 20th century. Guare has retooled the second and third plays to fit more neatly into a cohesive trilogy. The second play, “Aipotu,” opens next month. The third, “Home,” opens in April. For two weeks in late April and early May, you can see a marathon that includes them all.
It takes a shrewd playwright to update his work for a new audience, and a brave company to take on a trilogy that becomes its full season. Bring on the next installment.
“Cold Harbor,” produced by Ego Po Classic Theater, runs through Feb. 11 in the theater on the top floor of Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., to the side of Christ Church at Second and Market Streets. egopo.org.