ART Delivers Poignant, Imaginative ‘Father Comes Home From the Wars’ (4.5 Stars)

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’ – Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Jo Bonney; Sound and Music Supervision by Dan Moses Schreier; Songs and Additional Music by Suzan-Lori Parks; Music Director, Steven Bargonetti. Presented by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center at 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge through March 1st.

Not having read the Homer’s “The Odyssey” since high school, it took me a little while to catch on that there were more than a few references to the work during “Father Comes Home From the Wars”, the powerful and unpredictable Civil War drama now playing at the A.R.T. There are characters named Homer, Penny (or Penelope), Ulysses and even a dog named Odd-See (his eyes go in either direction), but you don’t have to be a scholar of Greek mythology to enjoy this brilliantly written and staged work.

Told in three separate segments that could probably work well as standalone pieces, the story follows Hero, a plantation slave in 1863 Texas during the height of the war. Hero was given the moniker by his owner, one presumes, much the way one would bestow such a grand name on a prize horse, although he is also much admired by his fellow slaves as the brightest, strongest and noblest of the bunch. Only time will tell if he is aptly named.

In the opening segment, “A Measure of a Man,” Hero is facing a life-defining conundrum: Stay with his wife Penny on the plantation, or join his owner (derisively referred to as ‘Boss Master’ by Hero and his fellow slaves) as his servant as he goes off to fight in the war. No self-respecting slave would fight for the Confederacy, we assume, particularly one of such character as Hero, but his owner has sweetened the pot by promising to set him free if he joins him. “I will be helping out on the wrong side,” he says to his wife and friends. “That sticks in my throat and makes it hard to breathe. The wrong of it.” But Hero chooses to take his chance for freedom, and that’s where we begin to see that his all too human qualities begin to emerge.

The second segment, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” involves Hero and his owner, the Colonel. They are separated from the Confederate contingent, but have secured a prize – a Yankee captain – whom they are holding captive in a crude wooden cage. This is the most powerful of the three parts, and it’s where we get to see the Colonel’s complicated and often ugly relationship with Hero as he becomes increasingly drunk. The Union captain and the Colonel engage in a discussion about the moral psychology of slavery, and the argument is not as one sided as one might think, especially in light of the context of the entire scene. We also begin to see how the real prospect of freedom as a reality instead of an idea plays on Hero’s mind, and the results are intriguing.

The closing piece, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” has Hero returning home, only now he has changed his name to Ulysses (which is not only the name of the victorious Union General, but also the Roman name of the protagonist of “The Odyssey”). All of the slaves except for Penny and his betrayed friend Homer are gone, but they’ve been joined by three runaway slaves who have been urging them to escape at nightfall. This is where the play abandons conventional storytelling, and veers into the fantastical that one would associate with mythology. Hero’s missing dog, Odd-See has returned before his master, and (literally) tells an animated (and absolutely hilarious) tale of what has become of his master and the Colonel. For me, it worked beautifully, but I could see how it would stretch the belief threshold for some.

The play does not tie up its ends neatly, and is loaded with surprises. In addition to the lyrical quality of Parks’ writing, what makes this drama work is the exceptional performances. Benton Greene is perfectly cast as Hero, with his regal good looks and presence, and Ken Marks as the Colonel adds depth to a character that could have easily ventured into caricature. As the dog, Odd-See, Jacob Ming-Trent is an absolute howl in his manic storytelling role, and Sekou Laidlow is convincing as the tortured Homer. My favorite performance was by Jenny Jules as Penny, who shines as the loyal wife. The supporting cast is terrific as well. Acoustic blues guitarist Steven Bargonetti also performs before and during the show, and along with the rest of the cast, directly engages the audience throughout.

This is a very unconventional, but powerful piece of theater. Go. For more info, go to: