The Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Yale Repertory Theatre. The New Haven theatre hosted Parks’ prize winning “Topdog/Underdog” among other works and is currently in residence with the author’s ambitious “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3”. An epic and intimate drama that follows the fortunes of a slave who decides to fight in the Civil War on the Confederate side, this is one of Ms. Parks’ more accessible plays. It is also one of her best.
Covering just over a year (1862-63) during the Civil War, “Father Comes Home from the Wars” is not some dusty historical treatise but a refashioned Greek tragedy with contemporary touches that explores this country’s legacy of slavery through the journey of one man. Hero (a remarkable James Udom) decides to join his boss master, Colonel (Dan Hiatt), and leave his wife, Penny (Eboni Flowers, wonderful) for the chance to gain his freedom by fighting on the battlefield. Part two of the play, and arguably its best sequence, takes place on that battlefield where Hero and the Colonel have a Union Soldier (Tom Pecinka) in captivity. The scene brings out the best in Parks’ writing delving into the complicated history of slavery and revealing surprises among its three characters in the process. The play ends with surprises, too, as Hero’s much-talked-about but never seen dog, Odyssey (Gergory Wallace, uproarious), returns to Penny with news about his master.
Parks continually riffs on Greek tragedy by often breaking the fourth wall with a chorus of runaway slaves and townspeople directly addressing the audience. It is both imaginative and thrilling with long arias delivered like the best of August Wilson by a magnificent company of actors including Julian Elijah Martinez, excellent as Hero’s chief rival. The three hour play is, however, longwinded (a problem with many of Parks’ works) and a tad twee here and there (that talking dog!), but is still a perfect fit for Yale which continues to deliver the most adventurous of theatre experiences for its diverse audience.
Under Liz Diamond’s daring direction, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez offers an expressionistic setting that recalls 9/11 and the striking lighting and sound designs by Yi Zhao and Frederick Kennedy cannot be undervalued. Parks has also composed the stirring songs and additional music for the play most of it performed from beginning to end by the talented Martin Luther McCoy. The singer’s soulful voice speaks volumes and brings the three parts of this riveting journey together with graceful humanity. “Father Comes Home from the Wars” is a rare theatrical experience that shouldn’t be missed.
“Father Comes Home from the Wars” continues at New Haven’s Yale Repertory Theatre through Saturday, April 7. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.