My boss and I recently fell into a discussion on the Nov. 4 general election, which feels like it's been pending since the Great Chicago Fire. I offhandedly said I thought the wait was worth it, as I didn't see any way (barring a monumental screw-up) that Barack Obama can lose the presidency. Anne had a pearl of a response, delivered with as much conviction as I'd mustered in my take on the Illinois senator's chances for victory.
“That might be OK to say for the coasts,” she said, “but once you get out there in the country, it's really a different thing.”
MOXIE Theatre's current Bleeding Kansas illustrates Anne's counsel. Kansas, after all, is high on the list as a repository of core middle-American values; and, oh, how the blood engulfed it in its search for that identity—any identity—prior to the Civil War. Amid the wholesale violence that defined slave ownership, Kathryn Walat's full-throated script paints “the country” as a starkly different place than the one Obama knows. His race is the supreme irony against a play like this, and as Election Day nears, Bleeding Kansas' artistic excellence drives that point home and back again.
Lecompton, near the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, is called the birthplace of the Civil War—and in 1855, Kittson Clarke (Jo Anne Glover) and her husband George (David S. Humphrey) could feel the storm gathering.
They would become casualties of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which the year before allowed for a popular vote on whether both territories would enter the Union as slave or free states. Proper Bostonian Hannah Rose Allen (Jennifer Eve Thorn) arrives at the Clarke home with a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin in tow, spreading her abolitionist message among the slave-staters. They, of course, will have none of it—and Hannah finds herself in the middle of the debate, taking up arms (and killing rattlesnakes to earn her keep) as bloodshed threatens the democratic process.
The point is that there's nothing democratic about slave ownership in any event—and here, that's illustrated through the slave-staters' slovenliness. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg floods the stage with that trait; the three male cast members effect enough crude behaviors for a cast of 30. Glover and Thorn are outstanding amid the din, with Thorn's voice and costumes moderating ever so slowly in deference to Kittson's courage of conviction. (Thorn told me afterward that she doesn't get to act much alongside her MOXIE co-founders; maybe that's what keeps her interaction with Glover so fresh and believable.) And in the last five years, Sonnenberg has come eons in using the stage as a character-development tool. You'll see what I mean as you watch the characters draw any number of lines in the sand, as much in defense of democracy as in defiance of one another.
Bleeding Kansas will mean more if Obama takes the state—the place will have come full circle, and art will assume its place in reflecting that. Meanwhile, Walat's way with words and the cast and crew's production savvy entertain, provoke and put a legitimate face on an abysmally sorry chapter in this nation's history.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Oct. 18. Bleeding Kansas runs through Nov. 2 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Ave., University Heights. $25. 760-634-3965 or www.moxietheatre.com.