Listen carefully to the Troubadour who opens Lifeline Theatre’s hugely engrossing production, “The Killer Angels.”
Strumming a guitar, he sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” that quasi-Biblical song that became a Union anthem during the American Civil War, and contained this line: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” There is something decidedly less than triumphal about the balladeer’s rendition. Determined, weary, rueful, anguished, broken? Absolutely. Victorious? Hardly. You sense the brokenness, both physical and spiritual, that comes most particularly with a civil war.
Karen Tarjan’s superb stage adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg was first staged by Lifeline in 2004. It has been remounted this season to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflagration — the battle that, over the course of its four days (June 30 to July 3, 1863), not only resulted in the largest number of casualties of the war, but also is widely seen as its turning point. And on all counts this production is a stunner.
The classic adage about war is that is comprised of “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” There is nothing at all boring about “The Killer Angels,” but it swings convincingly between those two extremes. And it has been ingeniously directed by Matt Miller and designed by Alan Donahue, so that a collection of rudimentary set pieces and props (scaffolding, a few wooden platforms, steamer trunks, some blankets and rifles) can be assembled and reassembled to suggest a slew of locations and battlefield perspectives.
Leading the Confederate forces is the aging Gen. Robert E. Lee (Don Bender, in a wonderfully measured portrayal of a complex man), who in many ways seems to have lost his tactical touch but not his stubbornness. Lee makes several crucially wrong decisions despite the advice of his colleague, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet (Tom Hickey, excellent as the man who respects Lee yet sees the error of his decisions).
On the Union side there is Col. Chamberlain (a winningly poetic Michael McKeough), the handsome, sensitive intellectual from Maine ordered to hold the Union line at any cost. He does so, heroically, suffering many casualties in the process, including a serious wound to his leg. (Chamberlain’s conversations with his younger brother — played by the appealing Zach Livingston — supply lovely interludes.)
Although there are only 10 actors on the Lifeline stage they magically manage to conjure thousands, with Steve O’Connell as a very funny, gung-ho Major Gen. Pickett and Sean Sinitski as Ewell, on the Confederate flank; Chris Hainsford as a Union general; Niall McGinty most memorable playing officers on both sides; Joe Flynn as an expertly shrewd spy; and throughout it all (with excellent music direction by Mike Przygoda), Matt Fletcher as the wonderful Troubadour who suggests the determination, fear and tragic undertow of this nation-altering war.