There are two distinct plays within Jessica Dickey's Row After Row, a presentation of The Women's Project at New York City Center - Stage II. Both deal with the Civil War and its ramifications. One takes place somewhere around the present day; the other, 150 years earlier, in the mid-1860s. This is occasionally confusing as one tries to escape the other, but they both provide a lot to chew on, considering a running time of just about an hour.
Set within the confines of a gray brick-and-mortar cabin, strewn on the outside with planks of firewood (designed by Clint Ramos), the contemporary sections of Row After Row follow a trio of Civil War reenactors unwinding from battle. Cal (PJ Sosko) and his best friend, Tom (Erik Lochtefeld) have retired to the cabin from the day's combat when they find that their usual spot is already occupied. By a woman. In an anachronistic soldier's outfit.
Leah (Rosie Benton) refuses to move, and eventually they drink together and begin to unwind. But their casual conversation soon begins a battle of the wits and the sexes as Cal unleashes his abhorrence at a woman being allowed to appear on the battlefield (we later learn he's recently experienced a bad breakup, perhaps owing to his anger). Tom, an expectant father about to embark on a teacher's strike, must try to broker the peace — if he doesn't get too overheated. Alternating with these scenes are moments from the actual Civil War, during which a Union soldier (played by Lochtefeld), escapes to the basement cellar of a local home and helps the owner (Benton) dress like a male soldier so she can sneak into the troops and kiss each one (the reasoning for which is unclear).
Benton, Lochtefeld, and Sosko find within their roles an extraordinary number of layers, breathing human life into characters who could easily be nothing more than sad sacks. Sosko, in particular, does quite fine work, imbuing the cynical Cal with a heart despite all of his bluster, and with help of the playwright, he redeems a character who says some things that are truly repugnant. As directed by Daniella Topol, the two different sections don't really gel, and when the actual Civil War section starts midway through, indicated by a sudden shift of Tyler Micoleau's lighting, the effect is particularly jarring. Still, Dickey writes strong, compelling dialogue, and even if the contemporary sections tend to go a bit too far into gender discrimination diatribe, the dialogue is believably human and the concept quite captivating.
Even if it's not as evocative as it could be, Row After Row is an intelligent look into heretofore unexplored dramatic territory. Dickey should be commended for tapping into the fertile soil of historical reenactors and the reasons why people would willingly abandon the present world to live more comfortably in the past.