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Almost 150 years after the fact, who knew that the final actions and ultimate decision of Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Civil War, paired with the relationship between the North and the South in the 1800s, could mirror, could parallel and relate to the feelings of a modern-day couple facing their own decision?
Playwright Catherine Bush did. Past and present collide at Barter Theater in “The Road to Appomattox,” written by Bush and directed by Katy Brown. “The Road to Appomattox” opens Sept. 6 on Barter Stage II.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first shots, fired at Fort Sumter, S.C. Commemorations have happened all around the country, not to celebrate the war but to remember where we came from.
“Perhaps the most defining moment during the greatest conflict in our nation’s history does not come from the beginning, but the end,” Bush explained. “The North and the South were in a relationship, much like a marriage, but it wasn’t going well. Had someone not made a difficult decision, the relationship could have ended, for good. The present-day couple intertwined with this story have their own big decision to make.”
“Taking place at the exact locations, but nearly 150 years apart in time, Bush brilliantly weaves together the story of Beau and Jenny Weeks, a modern-day couple marching through their own problems toward an important decision about the future, and Robert E. Lee, as he faces perhaps the most important decision of his future, his army’s future and future of a nation,” said Richard Rose, Barter’s producing artistic director.
The Civil War scenes are historically accurate, but the focus is less on the battles and more about the decisions and feelings of the “Man Inside the Marble,” as Lee is often described. The couple follows Lee’s footsteps as he retreats to Amelia Courthouse and then Appomattox, Va., where he surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. It is at this courthouse that the couple must decide what it means for them to surrender.
“Catherine Bush helps us see that in the moment of what some might consider to be his greatest failure, Robert E. Lee succeeds in showing us who he really was and reveals a greatness that continues to echo throughout time,” said Barter actor Rick McVey. “Because of Gen. Lee’s sense of honor, the North and the South could unite again.”
McVey will portray Lee, but this isn’t the first time he’s starred as the Southern general. McVey played Lee in last year’s staged reading of “The Road to Appomattox” as part of Barter’s Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights and more recently played Lee and other historical characters in Barter’s “Civil War Voices.”
Just how difficult is it to bring this Southern icon to life?
“When an actor portrays any character, the goal is to make that character so believable that the audience accepts the reality of what they see on stage,” McVey said. “That’s a daunting assignment no matter who the character may be. But when the character is an actual figure from history, the job becomes even more challenging because often audiences come to the theater with an image of the historical character already formed — whether or not that image is based on actual facts.”
“People think of Robert E. Lee as soldier, Southerner and saint. But the fact is, he was human. He had faults. Our contradiction is what makes the human condition so compelling,” Bush said.
Matthew Bivins (son of Barter favorite Mary Lucy Bivins), Justin Tyler Lewis, Erin Parker and Nicholas Piper round out the five-person cast.
“‘The Road to Appomattox’ takes a look at this great turning point in American history,” Piper said. “While the facts are historically accurate, Bush’s play looks at the inner thoughts and feelings of Lee and dynamically connects the past and the present.”
This play was born out of Barter’s AFPP, but gains a new reputation this year as the inaugural play of a new Barter series, “The Shaping of America.” Led by Piper, who not only plays Beau Weeks in the play but also serves as head of new play development and “The Shaping of America” series, “The Road to Appomattox” is the first commissioned play of the series.
Through 2016, the nation’s 250th birthday, Barter will dedicate one play each year to “The Shaping of America” series.
“These plays will focus on who we are as a country, how we got here and where we came from,” Piper said
Although not all of the chosen plays will be based on historical events, choosing “The Road to Appomattox” is appropriate given the Civil War sesquicentennial.
For more information about submitting ideas for “The Shaping of America Series,” visit w w w. b a r t e r t h e a t r e . c o m / s h a p i n g o f a m e r i c a .
Barter will host pre- and post-show discussions on “The Road to Appomattox” during 360 Panels, Sept. 10 and 11. audiences are invited to meet the playwright and the director at 7:45 p.m. before the show and stay after the performance for a led discussion with the actors. The event is free with a ticket purchase and gives attendees special insight and unique understanding of the play.
“Ultimately,” Bush said, “this play asks, ‘At what price unity? What is it going to take for two parts to become one?’ Both parties, both past and present, must choose for themselves which road to take.”