Theater Previews at Duke’s staged reading by an accomplished cast of Gore Vidal’s revised “On the March to the Sea,” a play written more than 50 years ago, leaves much to the imagination in assessing its potential, fully staged. Director Warner Shook’s justification for the format is “to illustrate the narrative and emphasize the characters,” but it also cuts costs and magnifies flaws.
Storyline revolves around Southern patriarch John Hinks (Harris Yulin), who builds a mansion, dutifully sends two sons to war and agrees with neighbors to burn their houses to keep Union troops from occupying them. However, Hinks doesn’t stick to the agreement and his house is commandeered.
Persistent intrigue and tensions build as a 10-day occupation of Union troops led by Colonel Thayer (Chris Noth) is juxtaposed with family, neighbors and other war issues. Noth effectively conveys a jaded, command soldier tired of war, sometimes ruthless, yet often philosophical and sympathetic. His strongest adversary is Minna Hinks (Isabel Keating), who dares to confront him and eventually guns him down as he fantasizes over her resemblance to his love back home.
Stories are legion of Southern families conflicted over reasons for going to war, such as honor and duty, vs. sparing the youngest child to salvage a family’s legacy. Their repetitions leave indelible marks on auds who understand and sympathize with the horrors of dying on medically deprived battlefields. Vidal has the eldest Hinks son, Grayson (Corey Brill) movingly describe these chilling scenes during a leave from the fighting.
There are no new revelations about the War Between the States in Vidal’s story. Its value is in the writer’s inimitable style brought to another version of stressed familial relationships and conflicting priorities caused by the war. The dialogue is engaging and meaningful.
But imperfections in the presentation and direction stifle the imaginative process. Experienced actors reading scripts flubbed a dozen or more lines. Timing too often was missing. Some actors gestured enthusiastically from behind their music stands; others moved only slightly. Dialogue was inconsistently directed at other actors or toward the audience. Cast wore casual clothes of today; subtle costuming would allow for greater identification of and with the characters.
When one to four of the cast members are upstage behind their music stands and script books, the other six to nine are seated in nearly equal illumination 10 to 15 feet back. A modicum of accent lighting would help the audience concentrate on those speaking and sense the mood.
The cast, which includes such names as Charles Durning, Michael Learned and Richard Easton, was together less than a week before perfs were opened to the public. And Vidal’s story isn’t so strong that it can survive uninspired direction, even in a staged reading.
Theater Previews invited the production to Duke after its developmental reading at Hartford Stage in the fall. Duke normally collaborates with established producers by providing facilities, student support and academic enrichment; producers bring professional cast, crew or costumes. “Little Women: The Musical” was polished at Duke in October before moving to Broadway in December.
If there are to be box office victories for “March” in the competitive theatrical market, the officer in charge needs to cut some new orders.