Acting, no matter how good, cannot overcome the fundamental incoherence of a play. This is manifest in the American Repertory Theater’s production of “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney. Despite some truly excellent performances on the part of the cast, the show ultimately fails to unify individual moments into a dramatic whole.
The play’s putative protagonist, Hero (Benton Greene), is a slave belonging to a Confederate colonel. In the first act, he faces the choice to stay on the plantation, go to war with his master (Ken Marks)--who has promised him freedom for service--or a third, most dangerous option: to run away and begin an uncertain life of freedom on his own terms. The general arc of the story is meant to reflect the “Odyssey,” but in practice this relationship is extremely attenuated and creates the single greatest occasion of confusion in this play. Like Odysseus, Hero leaves a war and comes home; other parallels, however, are not subverted so much as made awkward. While Hero is like Odysseus in that he is not faithful to his common-law wife, Penny (Jenny Jules), during his travels, he does not leave his mistress from abroad but rather marries her and brings her home, vitiating the poignancy of the Ithacan’s ultimate loyalty. On the other hand, Penny has not for her part been faithful, and is in fact bearing the child of another slave, Homer (Sekou Laidlow). Her loyalty is limited to refusing to kiss Homer, which makes something of a farce of Penelope’s faithfulness.
Indeed, there are few premises for these parallels that hold up well: while Odysseus is a king, it is unclear in the play why Hero is such an object of admiration and respect for the other slaves on the plantation. Homer’s name seems to be an almost deliberate affront to the audience, as his character has practically nothing to do with the archetypal poet. All in all, this entire central artistic premise serves more to confuse than anything else. The text’s penchant for melodrama and heavy-handed political metaphor does nothing to redeem the actual content of the play.
This state of affairs is a shame, since much of the acting showcased in “Father Comes Home” is superb. Particularly outstanding is Jacob Ming-Trent’s comic work in the third act as the speaking “Odyssey-Dog,” Hero’s canine companion. His delivery manages both to be frenzied and to be completely clear, a rare feat; his body language is strange and fantastical but exactly what one would expect from a dog in a man’s body. His performance provides a welcome touch of humor and whimsy to a third act that is otherwise overwrought. Yet the character itself is perhaps a misstep on the part of the playwright, since until its appearance there is no hint of the surreal or fantastic in the play, and the arrival of the Odyssey-Dog is somewhat discordant as a result. Another strong performance was that of Greene, who puts on a brave face as Hero, a character who is generally not especially sympathetic. He manages to eke from the text some genuinely touching moments, particularly in the first act, as he agonizes between leaving Penny and obeying his imagined call to greatness.
While the Civil War is a historical event with rich potential for dramatic treatments, especially those that draw on the tradition of classical tragedy, “Father Comes Home from the Wars” sadly falls short of the mark. In spite of some excellent acting and occasional moments of true pathos, artistic incoherence takes the day.
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