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Ellen Burstyn in
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Allan Gurganus's 1989 novel Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All is 700-plus pages full of astonishing prose. In it, a woman called Lucy Marsden, born (she reports) in 1884, recounts the story of her lengthy and adventure-studded life. Much of it, she relates with extraordinary vivacity, was spent as the wife of Civil War veteran Willie Marsden, 35 years her senior -- a private who'd raised his rank to captain as the years went on. As Gurganus puts stunning phrases into Lucy's mouth, he shifts from tone to tone and mood to mood with breathtaking facility, but it's not only his mastery of fiction techniques that distinguishes the book; there is also, as the stories accumulate, his jubilant affection for humankind and our species' irrepressible survival instinct.

There's another way in which the slowly revealed point of his discourse takes one's breath away: By depicting Willie Marsden as a man grieving throughout his life over a dead army companion and harboring homicidal inclinations, Gurganus knocks the pins out from under whatever medal-of-honor glamor remains attached to the Confederate cause in the present day. Captain Willie Marsden is an emblem of the damaged South and Lucy is the self-appointed messenger who offers a detailed and somber report about, and explanation for, the region's post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The novel is a gargantuan challenge to anyone wanting to adapt it to another medium. It might lend itself to adaptation as a film or television miniseries of Gone With the Wind-like proportions; as a stage offering, it's an entirely unlikely prospect. Indeed, the only alternative to attempting to put Gurganus's work on stage with a very large cast would be to go to the other extreme and have one storyteller with Homeric skills recite the tale(s). Martin Tahse has opted to take the latter approach, which is why Ellen Burstyn is now standing -- sometimes with the aid of a cane -- on the Longacre stage in Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. There she is, chatting about Willie Marsden losing his 13-year-old friend Ned Smythe during a swimming hole break in military activities; about the anguish of her wedding night; about how her growing friendship with Willie's housemaid Castalia flourished; about what happened when Willie's racist mother Lady was charred black as the family mansion burned to the ground; about what transpired when Willie visited Massachusetts to return a watch given him by a Yankee soldier he'd fatally wounded; and, lastly, about how she snatched up a scabbard to save herself when aging stroke victim Willie attempted to strangle her.

These graphic stories are full of grit and guts, all right, but Tahse's and Burstyn's combined exertions and those of the creative team supporting them -- including director Don Scardino -- are pallid. Their B-for-effort work only serves to suggest that more energy on everyone's part might have been expended. Yet, in the final analysis, there's also a hint that nothing they or anyone else might have tried would or could come close to matching the stylish verve and sympathetic understanding of Gurganus's monumental undertaking.

Supposedly, Burstyn as Lucy is the storyteller at an event billed as the Lanes' End First and Annual Charity Benefit. The actress walks into set designer Allen Moyer's realization of a large recreation room; just behind her is an area in which a table and various artifacts, including a sheathed scabbard, are displayed. Every once in a while, Burstyn sits in a wheelchair and maneuvers it slightly in this wide environ. Occasionally, slides intended to help illustrate Lucy's narrative are projected against the institutional-green walls.(The slide design is by Wendall K. Harrington, who evidently still has a lock on this market.) Also occasionally, lighting designer Kenneth Poser dims various sections of the stage and even turns the windows Atlanta-is-burning red when necessary. Sound designer Peter Fitzgerald provides appropriate battle effects as required. But all of this is to little effect. There's even something awkward and unaesthetic about the way that Harrington's slides of soldiers, Southern streets, and a bearded fellow meant to be Captain William Marsden hit the back wall; the lame impression they make can't be rationalized away by saying that Lucy's presentation is meant to be amateurish.

Another shot of Burstyn as the oldest living Confederate widow
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Burstyn does whatever she can to vivify Lucy as she delivers her speech. (The busy Paul Huntley has given her a curly gray wig and the ubiquitous Jane Greenwood has picked out two shapeless old-lady dresses to help age her.) Asking the audience for answers to her questions, Burstyn does lend veracity to Lucy's commentary, and she also gets some big laughs. One of them comes when she's discussing the difficulties of raising offspring at the turn of the last century and says with a judgmental tone, "Folks, you had to love your children then." But, ultimately, Burstyn is unconvincing as a centenarian, seeming more like a spry 70- or 80-year-old.

It seems as if Burstyn, who gives Lucy a winning smile and a large repertoire of gestures, could be doing more than she is. Perhaps director Scardino has let her down by not finding additional opportunities for Burstyn to take over the stage. Or is Tahse the culprit? There is, for instance, that array of memorabilia amassed upstage left. These would seem to be souvenirs from Lucy's long life, yet she only rarely picks up or refers to any of the tchotchkes. Why doesn't she make more of them? Also, in the spacious rec room where two other wheelchairs are pushed against the back wall, lots of space is wasted. Had Tahse decided to situate his play is a more evocative surrounding, such as the house in which Lucy lived for decades, Burstyn would have had more to work with.

As it stands, Tahse's play is an anemic edit of an eminently worthwhile piece of writing. Those genuinely intrigued by the idea of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All are encouraged to check out the Gurganus original.


[Note: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All closed after its opening night performance on Monday, November 17.]

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