At 99, Lucy Marsden had a nice stand atop the New York Times best-seller list; she’s the title character of Allan Gurganus’ 1989 novel “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.” Now the good folks at San Diego’s Globe Theaters would like to bring a live audience right there into her rest home to hear her brave, funny, horrific tale anew. Lane’s End, the place is called. Lordy, ain’t that kind of a misfortunate name for you to await your last boarding call?
That air of bemusement suffuses Martin Tahse’s stage adaptation, and Ellen Burstyn’s performance as Lucy: Age cannot wither nor custom stale the charms of a Southern lady.
Not that Lucy is a real lady in the entitled sense. No indeed. At 15, she was married off to 50-year-old Civil War veteran Captain William Marsden. The wedding night, as she reports it, was a re-enactment of the war, where her body stood in for Fort Sumter. So was the marriage, although it produced eight kids.
Lucy’s tale is in part an attempt to mitigate Will’s lifelong cussedness that grooved itself in the end into a murderous mean streak. The war did it to him. What chance did he have, when you can look at his picture as a 13-year-old decked out in a military uniform, his future waxed in idealism and sealed in unimaginable horror?
The war did it to everybody: Will’s best friend Ned, a bugle boy shot dead in a lake; his mother, torched by the Yankees until she turned black — and wasn’t that an irony? At Antietam, 43,000 perished in a day. There’s no way to come to grips with that.
In the meantime, Lucy is sustained by feisty, indestructible Castalia, a Marsden house slave whose contempt toward her masters is superseded by her loyalty in a complex bond based on mutual suffering.
Gurganus’ novel had a pitch-perfect ear for Lucy’s voice, but the stage version doesn’t have a sharp eye for her theatrical life. Two hours and twenty minutes is a long time to keep a solo performer walking a slow chronological tale to its inexorable end. Tahse’s adaptation doesn’t have alert pace and a varied angle of attack; it’s still too much book and not enough play. And although you can almost smell the mix of human leakage and disinfectant in Allen Moyer’s institutional setting, there’s too much of it, and it forms a less-than-clear backdrop for Wendell K. Harrington’s evocative period slides.
All of which requires a crispness and variety from Burstyn that she doesn’t quite deliver. We’ve seen elsewhere how Burstyn is capable of breathtaking soulfulness, of bringing a character’s inwardness to the surface without obvious gesture — the actor’s true magic. It’s a tough choice for her here. Does she reach other characters as an actress, or does she reach them through old Lucy, especially when the easy rhythm of Lucy’s fond look back isn’t enough to cut through the play’s literary inertia? Right now, Burstyn’s vocal pitch tends toward wan reminiscence and her reach into other characters doesn’t scoop enough of them to the surface. They’re sketched more than experienced.
“Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” might benefit from more intimate staging and sharper focus from Burstyn — this has the feel of a work-in-progress, a Polaroid still emerging with one unanswered question: How notable can a work be whose humanity is soured by the smirky post-feminist notion that the only good man is a dead one?