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The Playgoer: Colonial Players’ Shiloh Rules

Women fight their Civil War as ­battlefield reenactors in this comedy with conscience

photo by Colburn Images/ Carrie Brady is the feisty young Lucy Gale Scruggs. Ashley Spooner is Ranger Wilson, an African American professional reluctantly caught in the crossfire.

       How aptly Colonial Players’ season-opener reflects current events the company could not have predicted a year ago, when Doris Baizley’s Shiloh Rules was booked. As the nation continues to struggle with issues left over from the Civil War, this light-hearted 2009 drama is art imitating life in a world where art imitates life: the venue of battlefield reenactors. It’s called Shiloh Rules because in this game, as in battle, there are no rules (that anyone obeys).

            On this field of honor, Clara May Abbott (Jamie Erin Miller), aka The Angel of Antietam, was voted Best Reenactor of the Year for her role as a Union nurse. So dedicated to history is she that she can, and once secretly did, cauterize a wound with gunpowder. Her apprentice, Meg Barton (Laura Ivey) aspires to be just like her — if ever she can move beyond her contemporary vocabulary, her fear of loud noises and her aversion to sweaty men.

            Clara’s reputation is eclipsed only by that of her rival, the mysterious Cecilia Delaunay Pettison (Meg Venton), a bitter refugee in the War of Northern Aggression, whom Clara jokes can slaughter and skin a hog without staining the lace on her gloves. Cecilia is like a specter living on the edge of unspecified reality. When she is not spouting psalms or damning Yankees, she condescends to tutor her new cohort, a feisty hillbilly named LucyGale Scruggs (Carrie Brady).

            As in all wars, neutral parties are drawn into the fray, in this case a profiteer and the law. The Widow ‘Bucky’ Beckwith (Shannon Benil) is a battleground blogger cum merchant. Ranger Wilson (Ashley Spooner) is an African American professional reluctantly caught in the crossfire.

            Regular Colonial playgoers will recognize some of last season’s biggest names bringing their signature twist to a play director Beth Terranova calls “a comedy with a conscience.” Miller played Carla in Nine to hilarious effect; here the Angel of Antietam delivers a vivid portrayal of an overachiever at the teetering top of her game. Likewise Benil, the rebel choirmaster Cora in Calendar Girls, delights as the carabine-slinging huckster Widow Beckwith. Spooner, the voodoo clairvoyant in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, has Ranger Wilson walk a fine line between rectitude, resentment and recruitment.

            Relative newcomer Venton’s Cecilia is every inch the embittered yet genteel lady, tender one moment and terrifying the next. Brady’s naive face and youthful athleticism make her LucyGale Scruggs an ideal tomboy camp follower. Ivey rallies her armchair amateur with zeal to become a real Florence Nightingale.

            What makes this story so intriguing, however, is not so much the characters we meet initially as the people they become amid the trials of war as they change goals, opinions and alliances.

            A sparse but well-appointed natural setting, painted by award-winning designer Jane Wingard, grounds the action in reality. Bring a jacket, as special effects such as fog, flickering lanterns and threatening weather lend a frisson of fear.

            At just two hours with intermission, and including period weapons and explosions, Shiloh Rules is suitable for thoughtful preteens. In Terranova’s words, by using humor and a woman’s viewpoint, this play “provides a context that lets us hear each other’s messages without so much of the baggage.”

 

Director and set designer: Beth Terranova. Stage manager: Ernie Morton. Sound: Ben Cornwell. Lights and special effects: Alex Brady. Costumes: Terranova and Jeannie Christie.

 

Playing thru Oct. 1, Th thru Sa at 8pm and Su at 2pm, Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $23 with discounts, rsvp: thecolonialplayers.org.