How often do you get to see a play about the Civil War staged in a fort that stood guard during that war? Fort Jay, on Governors Island in New York Harbor, stood ready for the War of 1812, in fact. The fort never saw military action during that or any other conflict, but it did serve as a prison camp for rebel soldiers during the Civil War, which makes it startlingly appropriate for the interesting theatrical action it is seeing for a few weekends this spring.
Amelia, an ambitious two-hander, stars Shirleyann Kaladjian as a rather too fearless young Pennsylvania woman who dons a military uniform to pursue her husband’s regiment southward after he’s been gone to war for a couple of years. Opposite her the playwright, the versatile and sharp-witted Alex Webb, plays every other role (too many to count – father, mother, friend, farmer, husband, a slave, etc.).
Amelia is rooted in a scrap of a true story. Says Webb, “It’s a little-known fact that there were approximately 500 women who masqueraded as men and fought in the Civil War.” He took as inspiration an entry in a prison journal from the notorious POW camp known as Andersonville Prison in Georgia reading, “Rumor has it that a woman has come in here after her man” and developed at the Kennedy Center this expansive tale of the indefatigable Amelia. This Memorial Day weekend the play made its New York debut in a wonderfully moody setting, a dark cold stone chamber inside Fort Jay’s wall structure.
The diminutive Kaladjian is remarkably sturdy and affecting as Amelia, starting as a socially backwards but bull-defyingly-brave proto-feminist on a Pennsylvania farm as tensions mount leading up to the war. After she has a happy meeting of minds and hearts with a staunch abolitionist named Ethan, and brief halcyon times as his wife, Amelia is crushed to discover he’s enlisted in a volunteer corps for the war – which is anticipated to last just a few months, but still.
Long, difficult seasons later, after Ethan’s letters stop coming, Amelia sets out with nothing but a sturdy mare on a quest to find her devoted husband, dead or alive. A harrowing sequence of adventures later, after meeting a whole variety of characters both threatening and helpful (all played by Webb) and donning the uniform of a fallen soldier, she tracks Ethan to the prison, where they remain, fates highly uncertain.
The two actors deliver gristly, finely etched performances, and as a writer Webb has an admirable facility for colorful and evocative language, able to create many believable characters, settings, and circumstances with nothing but the actors’ words and motions. With practically no set or props, but a highly suggestive space, director Bill Largess provides innovative staging – witness, for example, the way Webb singlehandedly plays a character carrying and then dumping another character, whom he instantly becomes.
Where the play falters is in its overabundance. There’s just so much story here that the two-person, intermission-less format sags under it. Two-thirds of the way through I found my attention blurring, and the ending, though neatly set up and staged, wasn’t half so emotional as it seemed to want to be.
Nonetheless its many positive aspects make Amelia worth seeing, certainly as the centerpiece of a day at Governors Island. If you haven’t been to that former military and Coast Guard base, Amelia is a better reason for remedying that than many I could think of, and what’s holding you back anyway? The ferry’s free! The show runs on weekends through June 17. For more information and tickets, visit the production’s website.