Row After Row is the story of three people in present day Gettysburg who are Civil War reinactors – specifically of Pickett’s charge. Cal (P.J. Sosko) plays General Longstreet in the war game, and it drives him a little nutty every year to see the Battle at Gettysburg nearly won and then lost because of Pickett. He and his best friend Tom (Erik Lochtefeld) are long time participants in this event, and it has become a personal ritual for the two of them. This includes the post battle brews at a local tavern.
So imagine their surprise when they retire to their sacred space only to fins another human – and a w-o-m-a-n – has taken up residence in their space. Leah (Rosie Benton) was also part of the day’s activities. It is Tom – a teacher in real life – who will tell her that women on the battlefield dressed as men is historically accurate even if it is unpleasing Cal’s sense of right and wrong in that male vs. female versions of history. But first things first: Leah is not about to budge. So if the men want to drink in the particular room of the tavern, they will be sharing the space.
Cal and Tom decide to stay, but there is no bonding or banter to be heard. First of all there is her costume that needs critiquing – hers is not historically accurate in terms of thread count, making her a “farb” – an newbie who’s inauthentic approach (Leah also has jewelry) is a stain on the day. Then there is some pointless discussion of people with Downs syndrome. Finally Cal asks Leah about her experience. Suddenly we are shifted into a surreal and poetic description of the day that is haunting and somewhat jarring. In any case it earns Leah another beer.
The evening develops with revelations – Leah is a dancer with no career who picked Gettysburg with a blind point to the map. Tom is about to be a father and facing a strike by his own teacher’s union. Cal is suffering from a broken heart and lack of support from his best friend. In addition we move back and forth from 1863 to the present, and each person takes on another persona from the day of the battle.
Like I said this is a valiant attempt at spreading wide the tent for inclusion. And these actors each give excellent nuanced performances. In opening up the door to the many ideas explored here, however, Ms. Dickey never creates a compelling story for these present-day characters. There was no single character whose life pulled the story forward and us with it. Ms. Dickey did go wide but she missed going deep – and deep is where we want to go. It is a thrilling premise, but the idea alone is not enough to keep our attention.
In doing research on Clara Barton years ago I remember an image that she reported: The only place to sleep was outside, and because the ground was covered in blood, Barton had to gather up her skirts, squat down and sleep with her head and arms on her knees. Or the time she assisted in an amputation and was handed a leg to toss outside onto the pile. Images like these are missing from Row After Row. Instead it becomes a sort of bland history lesson – which I know was not her intention.
And – not to make too fine a point of this – but details like flat beer, Leah’s hap-hazard binding to hide her breads, her long hair dangling from under her hat and the lack of scuff marks on Cal’s boots are all important details that watered down Ms. Dickey’s intended tale.
Row After Row By Jessica Dickey; directed by Daniella Topol
WITH: Rosie Benton (Leah), Erik Lochtefeld (Tom) and P J Sosko (Cal).
Sets and costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; sound by Broken Chord; fight choreography by J. David Brimmer; associate artistic director, Kate Pines; production supervisor, Production Core; associate producer, Meropi Peponides; production stage manager, Jess Johnston. Presented by Women’s Project Theater, under the direction of Julie Crosby and Lisa Fane. At City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org. Through Feb. 16. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.