The Civil War rages again in Doris Baizley's Shiloh Rules. On the eve of the Battle of Shiloh, one of the war's bloodiest battles, six women prepare in different ways: they organize their medical supplies, bemoan lost lovers, or sell Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. In fact, though, this isn't the real Battle of Shiloh. In Flying Fig Theater's spirited production, these women are preparing for a re-enactment. Shiloh Rules pits North against the South once more, this time against a backdrop of contemporary America. Representing the North are Clara (Kate Weiman) and Meg (Janine Kyanko). Clara is a seasoned re-enactment professional who has earned the title "the Angel of Antietam." Meg, her young protégée, is volunteering to earn extra credit as a nursing student.
For the South, there is Lucygale (Judie Lewis Ockler) and Cecilia (Cordis Heard). The former is a thrill-seeking FedEx tracker, while the latter is a "re-enactor" so engrossed in the world of the Civil War that no one has ever learned her real name or what she does for a living.
Meanwhile, Park Ranger Wilson (Samarra) stands to lose both her job and her dignity as an African-American in a re-enactment where some of the "soldiers" openly celebrate a society that made slaves of her race. And the Widow Beckwith (Gwen Eyster) gleefully imposes modern-day commerce on a historical event; selling food and equipment to both sides, she is a self-professed "Civil War re-enactment profiteer."
As the battle's action takes place offstage, the women dart on and off the field for various reasons. Those from the North portray nurses and "tend" to the soldiers' false wounds. The ladies from the South, however, are not allowed to actively participate in the battle and are forced to sneak around in Confederate soldiers' uniforms while they steal supplies from the Northerners. In both cases, the chief motivating factor is a race for the "Best Female Re-Enactor Award," which holds great prestige on the re-enactment circuit. Before long, the re-enactment gets out of hand: mock battles sprout up in parking lots, around port-a-potties, and at the park's visitor center. As the stakes (and potential for property damage) rise, the park rangers are called on to stop the re-enactment before someone gets hurt.
Directed by Flying Fig co-founder Michaela Goldhaber, Shiloh makes excellent use of the Gene Frankel Theater's space. The second act makes you believe the fighting is indeed occurring just outside the theater doors in the lobby. Onstage, where several locations and times of day need to be distinguished quickly, set and lighting designer Scott Boyd's choice to simplify the playing area with only a few elevated platforms is perfectly effective.
The cast, however, is the major reason for this production's success. Legendary screenwriting teacher Robert McKee once said you find out the true nature of a character when you force him or her to make decisions under pressure. Here, all six actresses carve out their characters vibrantly as individuals, yet each represents a demographic without generalizing.
Weiman's reserved Clara successfully builds to an amusing emotional breakdown after the organized re-enactment she prepared for so diligently deteriorates into chaos. Ockler's Lucygale pinpoints the comedy in her character's high-stakes situation by admirably exploiting a craving for excitement that is absent in the modern, workaday world.
As Cecilia, Heard gives an authentic portrayal of a 19th-century war refugee; her character could pass for Scarlett O'Hara's tough older sister. Kyanko's character, a squeamish Ivy Leaguer, gets accustomed to the "horrors of the battlefield," and when she is called on to treat an actual backfire wound without modern medical supplies, she plays the scene with joyful abandon.
Samarra's park ranger watches the proceedings with fresh eyes and continually provides a satisfying reality check to the absurd goings-on. Beckwith, meanwhile, is expertly played by Eyster as a no-nonsense entrepreneur. She takes puckish delight in exacerbating conflict between the other characters, both in the re-enacted battle and in the world of the play.
Alisha Engle's costume design further explores the contrast between past and present in the play and goes beyond antique costume rentals. There is a wonderful disclosure at the end, when we see the characters in their "civilian clothes" for the first time. Clara's subdued peach suit and Meg's college shirt tell us immediately who these characters were all along. In fact, Lucygale's Superman shirt might be a little wink. We're finally seeing their secret identities.
Unfortunately, three or four of the "wrap-up" scenes are likely to induce watch glancing. The battle's buildup and climax are fulfilling, but the dwindling action after that could use a boost or perhaps even a few cuts to get the play to its conclusion without fizzling out.
That said, Shiloh Rules remains a sturdy and whimsical piece. The comedy takes a backseat to the action and pacing as the play charges ahead with pointed social commentary and sardonic characterization. It is a proper salute to historical re-enactments, that quirkiest and most theatrical of American pastimes. This very easily could have been Steel Magnolias on a battlefield, but instead Shiloh plays by its own rules.