An innocent 16-year old girl seduces the boy she has loved all her life on the night before he is to leave for the war. In the case of Jim Leonard’s disturbing new play “Battle Hymn,” the war happens to be the Civil War and the girl is named Martha.
Pregnant and disowned by her clergyman father, Martha then pursues her lover through every American war of the last 150 years, still carrying her unborn child in her belly.
Martha, beautifully played by Suzy Jane Hunt, remains actively onstage for the entire production, while her lover (Bill Heck), her father (William Salyers), their man-servant (Robert Manning, Jr.), and a Civil War soldier (John Short), morph into countless other ensembles to flesh out her long desperate odyssey. It is a tour de force for each of them, individually and collectively.
As she travels through time, participating in a battle here, surviving on a farm there, she stubbornly holds onto her baby, refusing to give birth in the troubled times she is living through. Meanwhile, Henry, her love, resigned to the life of the eternal soldier, experiences the terror, the anguish, the male bonding, and the intense camaraderie of the battlefield. In the same time period, Lanford, the indentured manservant, becomes a free man, an entrepreneur, a proud gay husband.
“Battle Hymn” encompasses all the battlefields of the 20th century (the bloody wars, civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights, gay rights, economic ups and downs) in all their clamorous ferocity. There are polemics, profundity, irony and humor in their playing out, sapping the audience’s energy as well as the cast’s. But well worth sitting through.
Director John Langs keeps his superb cast moving at a pace that overcomes the weight of a few scenes that might otherwise drag, and costume designer Dianne K. Graebner has them changing from one complicated and elaborate costume to the next in the twinkling of an eye. She makes this cast of five seem like 100 and adds a breathless component to the action. An original score by Michael A. Levine, sound design by Cricket Myers, lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge and background projection design by Jason Thompson all contribute to the overall epic sweep of this magical saga.
The world premiere of “Battle Hymn” is being presented Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 21 at (Inside) the Ford, at 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., in Hollywood. Call (323) 461-3673 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at email@example.com.