*** (out of 5)
Father Comes Home From The Wars is a three-part play by Suzan-Lori Parks that deals with the lives of a group of slaves during the American Civil War. At almost three hours, it is not a snappy evening and the pace set by director Weyni Mengesha makes it seem even longer. The virtues of fine acting help, the Homeric references add interest but the final result is not entirely satisfactory.
We are in Texas in 1862 and a slave named Hero (Dion Johnstone) is faced with a dilemma. His owner, a Colonel (Oliver Dennis) in the Confederate Army, wants him to follow him in the war and promises to free him in return. A slave fighting with the Confederate Army on the promise of freedom is laden with more irony than one can bear.
Lisa Berry, Dion Johnstone, Walter Borden, Akosua Amo-Adem, Marcel Stewart, Daren A. Herbert, Peter Fernandes, Roy Lewis. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Should Hero accept his owner's offer?
Four other slaves (the Chorus of Undesirable Slaves played by Akosua Amo-Adem, Peter Fernandes, Roy Lewis and Marcel Stewart) along with the Oldest Old Man (Walter Borden), a slave named Homer (Daren A. Herbert) and Penny (Lisa Berry) discuss and some even take bets on whether Hero will accept his owner’s offer.
If you are wondering about the Homeric references, Hero is Odysseus, the father who returns from the wars, Penny is Penelope, his faithful wife with a twist and Homer is really one of the suitors in The Odyssey, again with an interesting twist. There is also a faithful and talking dog names Odyssey (Peter Fernandes). Don’t sweat the classical references.
The second part takes place near a battlefield where the Colonel and Hero have Smith (Gregory Prest), a captive Union officer kept in a cage. The conversation among the three takes a wide range but it does not always keep one’s interest. But there are a couple of twists to Smith’s story that arouse interest but they do not get us anywhere.
The final part takes us back to Texas where some of the slaves are running away but there is a delay (they discuss things endlessly) and Hero, now called Ulysses returns home. There are a number of plot twists as the play winds its way to the end. Odyssey Dog appears and he does an extensive and even entertaining comedy routine but it does not quite fit the rest of the play. Was Parks running out of ideas and started adding plot twists and standup comedy by Dog?
The fate of Penny, Homer, Ulysses and the escaping slaves is finally resolved but in an unsatisfactory way.
Marcel Stewart, Lisa Berry, Roy Lewis, Akosua Amo-Adem. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Johnstone is a heroic and complex man who must deal with essential decisions including loyalty and treachery, fidelity and survival. For example, if he is to avoid following his owner into the Confederate Army, he contemplates cutting off a foot.
Oliver Dennis is the classic slave owner, arrogant, demanding loyalty without having to practice it himself and with a sense of superiority over his slaves based on skin colour. He can be cruel and treacherous and Dennis does a fine job in the role.
Penny is a sympathetic woman caught up in the maelstrom of war and a husband who wants to join in it. Her fate becomes even more distressing in the end and Berry draws our sympathy and admiration
Prest does a fine job as Smith the prisoner who is threatened with death and must talk his way out of being killed. There are a couple of plot twists involving Smith as well.
The set by Lorenzo Savoini suggests a barren landscape with a tree stump and a couple of rocks.
There is a great story to be told about a slave who chooses to follow hos owner in the Confederate Army but Parks is only partially successful in telling it and Mengesha in conveying it.
Father Comes Home from the Wars, (Parts I, II III) by Suzan-Lori Parks opened on August 4 and will run until August 17, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca