April, 2015

Barter Theatre's production of STONEWALL COUNTRY

Reviewed by Gary Aday

STONEWALL COUNTRY is a remarkable blending of music and narrative focused on recounting the life, achievements and contradictions of General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, CSA. Director Eugene Wolf has fashioned a compelling ninety minutes of entertainment and education from an outstanding group of top echelon actor/musicians who have honed this show to a bright edge of excellence over thirty years of performance from its inception at Lexington's Lime Kiln Theatre. With a book by Don Baker, music and lyrics by Robin and Linda Williams, the career of Stonewall Jackson is depicted in a series of episodes punctuated by songs which illustrate and comment on the erratic trajectory of his life.

Like U.S. Grant, Jackson would probably have lived out his life in obscurity and frustration had it not been for the Civil War. Going to West Point was his only option for higher education, as it was free. He was not a brilliant student, and was largely self-educated when he began, but he could work harder than anyone, so rose from the bottom of his class to seventeenth of the fifty-nine who graduated in 1846. Believing that one is purified by suffering, and that endurance of hardship while performing one's duty enables God to measure our achievement, the hazards of war held no terror for him, though he considered it the worst of evils.

After rising in rank through the Mexican War and the Seminole campaign, he accepted a position as instructor at the Virginia Military Institute. His students privately referred to him as "Tom Fool" for memorizing his lectures and being incapable of deviating from them to explain or illustrate. Thus, incompetent at teaching, the coming of the most savage of America's wars became his only opportunity for fulfilling his capabilities. He proved to be a brilliant strategist, and soon his "Stonewall" nickname became renowned internationally, for England, France and Russia had interests in the outcome of the war over Southern secession.

Jackson believed that once he perceived his duty, he was obligated to perform it and the consequences should be left to God's providence. It was an ideal creed for a military man of his time, particularly one of Presbyterian faith, and he felt that he was as safe on the battlefield as he would be if home in bed. But, to paraphrase Herman Melville's great Civil War poem, "Shiloh," there's nothing like a bullet to "undeceive," and Jackson was cut down by friendly fire while arranging his forces for battle at Chancellorsville. His left arm, which he customarily kept raised while observing his troops in battle, had to be amputated. Although the wound seemed to be healing satisfactorily, he succumbed to pneumonia. His final words were "let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees."

Robin and Linda Williams have made a wonderful song from these words, as they have done for other Jackson statements and experiences. Long famed for their appearances on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," they are accompanied in Abingdon by Jim Watson, a founding member of the bluegrass super group The Red Clay Ramblers. (It is he who has what is perhaps the most powerful song in this amazing collection, as a deserter who is about to be executed laments that "The War's Gone Bad on Me.") Performing the title role in this show is Jason Petty, who will be remembered by Barter patrons for his role as Johnny Cash in last season's RING OF FIRE. Another notable from RING OF FIRE, Emily Mikesell, returns for this production. All four of these actors are outstanding instrumentalists with superb vocal technique; their harmonies are exquisite and every moment of the show is dynamic.

A portrait of Jackson, a background of the shade trees from which he came and toward which he journeyed, comprise the setting by Derek Smith. Costumes are by Amanda Aldridge, lighting is provided by Andrew Morehouse, and sound design by Miles Polaski.

STONEWALL COUNTRY is a must-see event in this largest ever Barter season. It will continue with performances May 7, 8 and 9, and will return June 18-21.