Stepping into the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street is like walking through Lucy’s wardrobe in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Instead of ending up in Narnia, audiences will enter a Confederate Army encampment outside Burlington, NC, in 1865. Pine straw covers the stage, all the way up to the seats. Trees line the perimeter, and faintly behind those trees, Phil Cumber, Scott Davis and Steven Anderson have painted the silhouettes of distant horizons. A campfire burns in the center of the room, surrounded by crates and a stump. Set designer Scott Davis has truly taken immersive theatre to heart as a guiding principal for his vision of “The Last Encampment” by David Anthony Wright.
Wright is perhaps best known to Wilmington audiences for “The Hermit of Fort Fisher,” a story wherein he depicted the life and death of Carolina Beach’s most famous resident. “The Last Encampment” explores familiar tropes of war literature: a sense of endless waiting, futility and the chasm between enlisted men and officers. It depicts a long night of waiting and soul-searching for a regiment of Confederate soldiers near Burlington, NC. It could as easily be set in Vietnam as the American Civil War. How each soldier responds to life’s questions is what Wright is trying to probe.
The most extreme reaction comes from regimental drummer, Patrick O’Malley (Thomas Winner). At the opening of the show, he still isn’t speaking—or eating. He is in a state of extreme trauma. Winner actually has one of the more challenging roles: He is onstage from the opening ‘til the final bow—the majority of which goes without any interaction with other actors. He has to convince the audience completely that his journey to communicate, both with words and fateful actions, is real and genuine. He turns in a performance that is surprising for such a young actor, but he has been performing onstage in some capacity or another since he could walk. Winner’s performance is painful to watch and heart-wrenching, especially when he finally connects with Sgt. Mos Rainey (Woody Stefl). Those two together bring the evening’s most truly tender moment to life.
Stefl’s Mos is a man of deeds and actions, not words. When given long speeches, it seems in contrast to the character. He is a man wrestling with an angel but not even certain he wants to continue the bout. He shines during moments Mos is to display real leadership. Like the rest of the regiment, he is more weary of waiting than fighting. As the intermediary between men and officers, Mos has the unenviable job of enforcing orders with which he disagrees. When pushed to the brink, he discovers where his loyalty lies. Stefl’s quiet but determined performance of the unspoken is moving. Of all the men in the regiment, perhaps that one who needs him most is who would least admit it: Pvt. Sam Culpepper (Randy Davis), a one-eyed card shark has kept the regiment fed with the spoils of the poker table for as long as anyone can remember.
Davis’ Culpepper is filled with bluster and arrogance, partly as a coping mechanism and partly to remind himself who he is. If he can just recite his particulars, he can retain his humanity—and Davis convinces us he is genuinely scared it is slipping away. His verve and tenacity are irresistible and his commitment to each moment onstage is captivating to watch. His foil is Pvt. Angus McIntyre (Rich Deike), who found God in the carnage of war, and quotes scripture instead of making conversation.
Into their lives, various officers parade periodically dropping information from on high. Of these, Colonel Holloway (Eban Mastin) seems to be the one most in touch with realities of the enlisted men—having sacrificed his arm in battle solidified their respect for his bravery and commitment. Major Parker (Rob Winner) is tasked with preventing desertion and thus is “the enforcer” (no smiles, no gentleness, no bargaining, no forgiveness). He gives us the studied façade of a man who has heard every argument and plea, every convincing lie, and will do the job he has to do. There is a grudging respect and sense of desiring distance from him.
But for Colonel Wilcox (John Wolfe), they have nothing but loathing and distrust. Wolfe does an admirable job of convincing us Wilcox has left the reality train several stations back. Frankly, his performance made me want to kill him—and my life wasn’t in his hands. It must be beyond terrifying for those at his mercy.
But for all these elements, there are still rocky pieces to the show, and on opening night, it felt like the cast hadn’t gelled yet. In any large cast, there are performances that stand out more than others, but there was an unmissable unevenness to the performances that at times seemed downright distracting. Though I wanted to root for the enlisted men, I couldn’t figure out what they were rooting for. To win? To go home? To make it to another day? Of all of them, Davis was the one I connected with most. His goals were clear: Survival at all costs. Even the officers didn’t really inspire respect or admiration. Yes, they were weary, but would I have followed any of them into battle? Laid down my life for them? Outside of Mastin, highly unlikely.
Wright’s dialogue is heavy. He notes in the program he is evoking a world of words that has shifted and changed with the advent of television and Internet. It is an adjustment not only for several members of the cast, but also for untuned ears. A show about war and the futility of life on the losing side of it is not, by definition, an evening filled with fun, levity and rejoicing. But can we deepen, connect and develop the conversation about who we are? Why we fight? And if we humanize history or not? In spite of the detail in the design element, which are top-notch, the show itself didn’t leave me with a deeper insight into the human experience—or even Southern identity.