‘The Steadfast’ looks at those who gave all
For all the talk of war – which conflicts in which the United States should be engaged, what rules apply to which groups of people who can and cannot serve – it is often easy for those of us sitting at a remove from the battlefield to remember that these discussions pertain to individuals, with beating hearts and loved ones standing alongside them and waiting for their return at the home front. Mat Smart’s aptly titled The Steadfast, now playing at TBG Theater, is an economical cornucopia that renders the political incredibly personal.
Smarts sly play, directed with keen understatement by Wes Grantom, traces the role of the American soldier from the Revolutionary War to the most recent battles in the Persian Gulf, a la Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle. At two and a half hours, however, Steadfast resists the impulse to reach for epic effect. Still, do not be confused: size does matter. It’s just that instead, Smart’s nimbly woven kaleidoscope of vignettes creates a rich tapestry that emphasizes depth over length.
Among the stories within this saga: a 1950s mother (a wonderfully evocative Susan Greenhill) sits in front of a red oak tree planted by her son (Ben Kahre), before he died in the Korean War. In another example of filial devotion, a 1776 father (Brent Langdon) frets over the revolution his sons plan to assist against the British. In 2003, eighteen-year-old Private Tommy Kellar (Matt Dellapina) asks Lance Corporal Powell (Cloteal L. Horne), the only woman in the squad, to help him write the girlfriend he left behind back home. Powell, it turns out, has relationship strife all her own: she felt compelled to join the marines following 9/11 but not to inform her pacifist husband, Mark (Nick Mills), that she was doing so. In 1968, three young men (John Behlmann, Dellapina, and Alex Ubokudom) flee to Canada to dodge the Vietnam draft. The Civil War is acknowledged by a vignette in which a runaway slave (David Ryan Smith) hopes to join the Union army.
Structurally and at times even thematically, Steadfast recalls Paula Vogel’s recent A Civil War Christmas, although the former is a tauter and more affecting work. It is one that also requires a bit of work on the part of its audience. Though Grantom’s ensemble is highly talented (and able to stitch humor and pathos together without manipulation), since actors play multiple parts, it can be difficult to discern which characters they might be playing. It can also be tricky to determine what current age a character might be, as some age, and not necessarily in chronological order. For example, and without giving too much away, one performer ages nearly a century over the course of scenes that bounce around. The fact that these scenes are scrambled instead of linear also takes some getting used to, and the narrative benefits significantly from a second viewing or a reading of the script for those lucky enough to access one or the other. Smart’s anthology, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, makes an important point about the souls who have served on any battlefield being forever linked by their valor. The Steadfast is an ambitious but necessary play that should not be missed.
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