Circle X Theater Company’s world premiere production of Jim Leonard’s new play “Battle Hymn” is excellent in all respects save one, and that one is, unfortunately, the play itself. The cast is outstanding, John Lang’s direction is inspired and tech credits are uniformly superb. Leonard’s writing is rich and often humorous, and he’s skilled at creating memorable characters. But what works as a tightly observed piece of fable in act one explodes into a scattershot fantasy in act two, never quite regaining its balance or sense of purpose.
In Civil War-era Kentucky, 16-year-old Martha (Suzy Jane Hunt) has secretly been in love with her friend Henry (Bill Heck). Before he leaves to fight in the war, she declares her passion to him and ends up pregnant. Her father (William Salyers), the local reverend, kicks her out of the house, so she decides to find Henry to give him the great news. Along the way she is attacked by ex-slave trafficker Primbody (John Short) and ultimately ends up in the Army herself, reuniting with Henry and his Harvard-educated friend Lanford (Robert Manning Jr.). What she sees during her travels makes her decide not to give birth in such a violent time, and she stays pregnant, waiting for a better moment to bring her baby into the world, for more than 100 years.
Hunt is a charming and charismatic lead, and she centers the show by focusing on Martha’s essential decency and humor. Heck is memorable as a series of men who disappoint Martha, from the surprising Henry to a deceptive guy who morphs from a ’60s dude to a chilly ’80 stockbroker overnight. Salyers excels as Martha’s strict and self-pitying father and a Germanic doctor alarmingly ready to give everyone electroshock therapy, and he gets plenty of laughs as a mooing cow. Manning is convincing as both the young Lanford, looking for true freedom and love, and the elderly Lanford, stooped and kindly and burdened with the past. Short effectively brings a somewhat weary flamboyance to the conman/survivor Primbody, and he’s funny as a couple of nurses who doubt Martha’s story.
Lang’s staging is efficient and ingenious, evoking a Civil War encampment, the caboose of a train, a flat prairie and a San Francisco apartment often by simply moving some chairs and changing the lighting. Leonard’s play, while delightful in many ways, is a message piece without a clear message — other than war is bad and we are continually at war, which regrettably seem like obvious truths.
Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scorched-wood set fits the show wonderfully. His expert lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ resonant sound design combine to create theater magic, from a traveling locomotive to a Civil War battlefield. Jason H. Thompson’s projections, from a moving moonscape to a snowy night, add considerably to the artistry of the production.