Entertainment » Theatre

Father Comes Home From the Wars: Parts 1-3

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 4, 2018
James Udom in "Father Comes Home From the Wars: Parts 1-3"
James Udom in "Father Comes Home From the Wars: Parts 1-3"  (Source:Joan Marcus)

The first thing to know about "Father Comes Home From the Wars: Parts 1-3" is that although parts four through nine are still to come, the show nevertheless tells a reasonably complete story.

The second thing to know is that yes, there's a talking dog (Gregory Wallace in a fur coat), but he doesn't show up until the final act. So get comfy while you wait.

ACT stages Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Lori-Parks new freestyle riff on some Greek classics, with director Liz Diamond noting that "Father Comes Home" is a little bit of "The Odyssey" but more "Agamemnon," both by way of the Civil War rather than Troy.

Hero (yes, that's the protagonist's name, here played by a marvelously picturesque James Udom) goes off to war as a slave pressed into fighting for the Confederacy and comes back a free man, but only possibly a changed man in this epic-length thinker about human nature.

Very often in "Father Comes Home" the characters and/or story stop to ponder what people are really like deep down, often casting an anxious eye toward the possibility that, unfortunately, most of us probably aren't so hard to figure out after all.

But for all of its ambitions of interiority, the show keeps Hero himself frustratingly opaque.

The first and third of this three-hour program is spent in interminable pondering about whether our elusive lead will go off to the war or not. Why he, as a slave, allegedly even has a choice in this matter is never clear.

Since everyone knew the title of the play when we sat down, the point here is presumably not to find out what he eventually does but rather to settle the question of why.

Frustratingly, after agonizing over every possible variable for a term seemingly longer than many actual wars, Lori-Parks settles the conflict by taking it essentially out of Hero's hands and leaves us (and him) even less certain about his motivations than when the business started.

"Father Comes Home" is in effect a cycle of three short plays slung together. That first one is a grind and the third is a puzzle, becoming a domestic drama with a troublingly ambiguous conclusion that's probably inescapable given the topics of human evil and America's eternally toxic racial legacy.

(And yes, this is also the part with the talking dog, go figure.)

So it's only the show's second hour, set in the midst of the war itself and a bleak limboscape of discarded steel beams and overcast skies designed by Riccardo Hernandez, that really seizes on the perfect middle ground between myth, history, humanity and, for lack of a better word, heroism.

This bit includes Dan Hiatt as a drunken Confederate officer, buffoonish and embarrassing but also persuasively and chillingly malevolent. When he offers an encapsulation of American racial privilege that's shocking in its timelessness - "no matter how low I sink, I will always be white" - it's enough to press gasps from the audience.

This is also the part featuring Tom Pecinka as a captive soldier with a secret, and in which Udom, who seems adrift throughout much of the play, becomes the most engaged and focused, thanks in part to the intricate, mousetrap-like tension of the action as it unfolds.

"Father Comes Home" offers other standouts as well, including Yi Zhao's straightforward but alarming lighting effects simulating cannon fire, Julian Martinez's unguardedly sincere turn as a hobbled slave cursed with too much insight, and Eboni Flowers' wrenching displays as a forsaken wartime wife.

But the whole product is too hazy in its aims, and consistently mired by ambivalence.

Hero's story is more often about the consequences of his curiously consequential decisions for everyone else. This turns him into more of a figure than a character, and neither Udom nor Diamond seem to be able to yank him out of that mire.

When he finally does make hard decisions, they often seem inexplicable for this reason. War drives everyone to extremes, but in this case it's difficult to place how close to the fringes we even started.

"Father Comes Home From the Wars" runs through May 20 at A.C.T., 415 Geary Street in San Francisco. For information or tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit ACT-SF.org.

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