Flying Fig Theater's fine production of Doris Baizley's Shiloh Rules reminds me of what happens when people take Dungeons & Dragons -- or Renaissance fairs -- too seriously for their own good.
Directed with precision by Michaela Goldhaber, the play is set in the present at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, established in 1894 to preserve the grounds of the Battle of Shiloh, the first major battle -- and one of the bloodiest -- in the Western theatre of the Civil War. There, a clutch of women arrives to partake in a battle re-creation, and their efforts at historical verisimilitude are both Herculean and astonishing. Representing Union women, for example, is Miss Clara May Abbot (Kate Weiman), given to maintaining the accuracy of 19th-century phrasing. Mrs. Cecelia DeLaunay Pettison (Cordis Heard) is not only exquisite in her lacy, petticoat-dominated clothing, but she drawls in a stentorian twang that rings of inveterate Confederate pride.
As bitter enemies from past re-creations, each woman has a factotum: Meg Barton (Janine Kyanko), working with Miss Abbot, has a cosmopolitan air; LucyGale Scruggs (Judi Lewis Ockler) idolizes everything greycoat. Whether checking on period-exact surgical instruments or waxing rebellious, the women, presumably among hundreds of unseen participants, prepare for the re-creation to come.
It is curious and risky that Baizley begins the play with all four women "in character," as it were, and as it takes time for this to become clear, Act I feels long. The play's real action begins with the arrival of Widow Beckwith (Gwen Eyster), a shyster nominally unaligned with either side, to sell period artifacts of questionable provenance, and of Ranger Wilson (Samarra), whose job is to keep all off the battleground until the event begins.
Shortly before dawn, the unexpected sound of cannon fire signals this Battle of Shiloh will be different from all the others; as Wilson is African-American, that turns out to be very much the case. Quickly the play becomes less about women overinvested in reliving yesterday and more about how the causes of the Civil War -- the rights of African Americans -- continue today to bubble underneath the nation's fragile surface.
By taking time to reveal her theme, Baizley rolls the dice, and it pays off nicely in the cast's performances -- especially Kyanko, who handles with insight and grace a climactic scene in which Ockler's character is hit with live fire. The re-creation itself is too long -- ditto the play's final scenes -- but the political lines the playwright draws between the Civil War era and our own are marvelously unconfused. Like the best war plays, Shiloh Rules thrums the heart and stirs the mind.
Presented by Flying Fig Theater and Middle Tennessee State University
at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond St., NYC.
March 18-April 9. Schedule varies.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.