Volume I, Issue II Winter 2002

'Confederate Widow' too slow to hold interest

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Adapted for the stage by Martin Tahse
From the novel by Allan Gurganus
Directed by Don Scardino

Old Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatres complex
Balboa Park, San Diego, Calif.
Through March 8

"Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" is a best-selling novel. It has a storyline that moves from antebellum slave quarters to a modern retirement home. It features romance and war, love and disappointment.

All of this combines to give this story much of what a good play should have - which is undoubtedly what drew veteran producer Martin Tahse to want to adapt Allan Gurganus' novel for the stage as a one-woman play.

For its world-premiere at San Diego's The Globe Theatres, it even has Tony- and Academy-winning Ellen Burstyn in that single role.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All To top it off, just two weeks before its Saturday evening premiere, the last surviving Union widow of a Civil War veteran died in her 90s (there is reportedly still one surviving widow of a Confederate veteran) – how can you beat that kind of publicity?

And yet, despite all these ingredients that ought to add up to a winner, "The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" somehow is very flat on stage.

There are too many stories that don't go anywhere, too many vignettes that don't seem to illustrate much of anything.

Burstyn is game in the role of Lucy Marsden, the fictional aging widow who married an older Civil War veteran in her youth – a story that actually happened quite a few times, right up through the 1920s, which explains how there can still be a Civil War widow alive today. The story unfolds with Marsden in a retirement home greeting the audience as a guest come to hear her life story.

But it just doesn't work. Having Marsden relate her late husband's Civil War combat experiences doesn't carry the same passion as having him do so himself would have. Having her reminisce about her husband's former slave's reminiscences is equally cold for its inherently second-hand nature.

By the time Marsden gets around to telling her own story in the second act, the production has become so deadened that even the recounting of a tragedy that befalls one of her children carries little weight.

Allen Moyer's set does a nice job of capturing the 1950s cinder-block architectural style that so many public institutions adopted. It's open and light and has the feel of a modern retirement home.

As mentioned, Burstyn gives the role a fair shot – but there's too much narrative and very little reflection on the part of her character. There simply isn't enough meat in the character to do anything with.

Minus that substance, there's only so much Burstyn can do.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

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