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 V.21 No.39 | September 27 - October 3, 2012 

Performance Review

Turning Point

Mother Road brings the Battle of Gettysburg to life

William David Johnson (left) and Justin Tade
John Maio Photography
William David Johnson (left) and Justin Tade
The Killer Angels is massive, sprawling, unwieldy—just like the novel it's based on. Featuring a cast of almost 30 characters representing real historical figures, the play attempts to dramatize the events surrounding the Civil War’s pivotal Battle of Gettysburg.

Angels' script comes from the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Michael Shaara. Adapted by Karen Tarjan, the story jumps between the viewpoints of the many officers involved as they struggle to make decisions that eventually determine the outcome of the infamous battle. Shaara’s book is recognized for highly detailed historical accuracy, the result of painstaking research into innumerable letters, personal accounts and historical texts.

But what makes the narrative so remarkable as a novel becomes its shortfall as a play. The tale gets overburdened with the sheer number of characters, historical detail and battle tactics. Logistical questions (where the enemy will attack, from which direction, how many troops there are and how best to retaliate) form the majority of the script. It’s an overwhelming amount of technicality to be thrown into. If you, like me, have only a tenuous grasp on the difference between War 101 terms such as "infantry" and "cavalry," you’ll spend most of the time just trying to retain your footing.

What The Killer Angels wants to do more than anything else is lend humanity and perspective to the Battle of Gettysburg.

This is not to say that the production by Mother Road Theatre Company is unsuccessful, only that it is meant for a fairly specific niche. Those with an interest and understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg—the history junkies, war aficionados, Civil War re-enactors or people who adore Shaara’s book—will likely love this play as well. The sheer scope of the story and its incredible specificity are bound to tickle American history buffs.

Unfortunately, the script is so preoccupied with getting the facts across that the story never quite emerges. What The Killer Angels wants to do more than anything else is lend humanity and perspective to the Battle of Gettysburg. The author takes great pains to tell the story from many angles: North and South, officer and private. But with the plot considered from so many vantages, there’s little time to evolve characters with depth.

James Brian Tuttle
John Maio Photography
James Brian Tuttle
There are players who stand out with the potential to be developed. In the North, there’s Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, who shares a few touching moments with his brother and the one fictional character in the book, a private named Buster Kilrain. In the South, Gen. James Longstreet’s conflicted and sometimes contentious relationship with his direct superior, Gen. Robert E. Lee, is worth a deeper look. These characters are a hair more reflective than the rest. They consider not only the decisions they are forced to make but their role in the war on a larger scale. They pause to ponder why they are fighting, what the outcome will be and how their part will affect it all. It’s a good start, but Tarjan only scratches the surface of the complex humanity buried in the tale. The rest gets lost in the din of voices.

The Killer Angels is, perhaps, just not meant to be dramatized live. The tale might work as a sprawling seven-hour TV drama, but to whittle it down to a successful two-hour theater production would require compromising source material, eliminating characters and amending the facts in favor of a clearer, more streamlined narrative. Of course, such a departure from historical truth would be an unforgivable offense to some. Those folks should go see this version.

The production itself is managed adeptly by directors Julia Thudium and Vic Browder. They make good use of the intimate Filling Station, creating an evocative and practical space. The map painted on the floor is an innovative touch, adding ambiance while also clarifying some of the detailed geographical discussion and the armies' respective positions. The ensemble, too, is strong: The performers have a clear rapport and work well together.

The Killer Angels offers a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Gettysburg and is meant for a palate that will appreciate an in-depth look into a pivotal moment in our nation’s past.

The Killer Angels

Runs through Sept. 30
Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 6 p.m.
Sunday at 2 p.m.

The Filling Station
1024 Fourth Street SW
Tickets: $18 general admission, $12 students and seniors, $10 for all Thursday shows

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