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Into the Arms of Strangers

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I'm trying to know you." This plea, voiced by a dying Union soldier to a freed slave, is at the crux of Hallowed Ground, the Laura Harrington Civil War drama staged by Tulane's theater department April 20-24 at Lupin Theater. Jack, the soldier, asks Micah, the former slave, if he can touch her face. He has never touched a black person before, and now, on his deathbed, he finds her by his side. When by way of response, Micah questions why he cares to know her at all, Jack replies "Why not? You're here, and you're alive."

In her monologues and two-person scenes, well known to scores of acting teachers, Harrington has explored our very human longing for connection. The ground on which this drama treads is fertile, if familiar terrain -- that stubborn desire for intimacy that remains after we're stripped of everything but our humanity.

The play opens with a trio of Confederate soldiers marching into battle, then introduces Southern belle Lizzie (Katie Holland) and her former slave Micah (Dana Webb), whose newborn child has just been killed by Union army members during Sherman's March through Georgia. With more soldiers on the way, the women flee their home, and we next see them on a deserted battlefield wrestling warm clothes off the dead. Their struggle for survival is clouded in a haze of post-emancipation tumult that includes the revelation of a family secret, and one that initially separates them as Lizzie runs off into the forest to fend for herself.

That separation sets up concurrent encounters between each of the women and a soldier. Micah meets Jack Walker (Michael Santora), who forces her to help him tend his wounds. Lizzie encounters Jubal Haley (Sean Mellott), a poetic young Confederate whose name underscores his ability to play the bugle. Jubal, who earlier in the play is seen preparing for battle, now searches for a Yankee who spared his life and was then wounded. The merciful Yankee, of course, is Jack, and the play's resolution arrives when the two pairs are reunited, sister with sister and saved with dying savior.

Strong two-character scenes and some literary depth elevate the material beyond its conventional wartime plot. One theme that Harrington returns to throughout is that of the enemy -- the ultimate "other" -- as lover, the person with whom our deep need for connection is most palpable. An early scene features Lizzie fending off a Union solder's rape attempt by turning his gun on him. Harrington and director Ron Gural make a risky but dramatically more interesting choice that has Lizzie partly seduced by her aggressive suitor. She later tells Jubal that the soldier smelled like fire smoke and leather and that he looked at her like she was somebody. And while she knows he was trying to hurt her, he also displayed tenderness toward her. She expresses bewilderment that she killed the soldier "for kissing me," adding to Jubal, whom she grows to love over the course of the night in the forest, "It could have been you."

This theme emerges in other places as well. Jubal compares the bloody wounds from enemy fire to red roses. Later, as he is about to confront Jack, Jubal wants to look nice for the enemy who spared him. If we can see the lover, the good, in our enemies, the play postulates, we can get past gross assumptions about people that limit our ability to connect.

The acting throughout is strong and clear, and the young performers make bold attempts to capture the emotional intensity demanded by the script. A near-rape, murder, the death of Micah's newborn, Jack's final gasps -- these are big moments, and rather than taking the safer approach and underplaying them, the actors throw themselves in headfirst. While their efforts are to be admired, Gural might have helped them better channel some of this emotion away from their faces (where it results in a lot of grimacing and knit-brows) and into their physicality. In a play where the key moments involve touch -- Micah allowing Jack to feel her face, Lizzie and Jubal's tentative, much fidgeted-over kiss -- the actors seem largely inattentive to their bodies and movements. The tender and potentially riveting moments, then, don't register nearly as much as they should.

While lighting designer Rebecca Wolf's various looks are often pretty, especially the misty scene at the opening of act two, they could have been more effective in setting the scene as night -- it was well into the second act before I realized the golden orb projected on the back scrim was the moon, rather than the rising or setting sun. Set designer Diane Cupsa's veils of cloth over the stage, punctuated by a few spare tree trunks and colored by slide projections that blurred in the center, created a serviceable neutral palate. Costumes by Michelle Bohn captured the period. In all, this was a firmly grounded production that gave vivid life to Harrington's signature turf.

Former slave Micah (Dana Webb) comforts dying Union soldier Jack Walker (Michael Santora) in Tulane's recent production of Hallowed Ground. - NED DISHMAN
  • Ned Dishman
  • Former slave Micah (Dana Webb) comforts dying Union soldier Jack Walker (Michael Santora) in Tulane's recent production of Hallowed Ground.

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