Solana Beach, CA---I know I collect a lot of “stuff”, but not for forty years. Playwright Tim Burns wrote “Faded Glory” in 1973. He won the National Endowment Award for Creative Writing in 1974, and there it sat. He wrote it after ‘reading a biography about Daniel Edgar Sickles” a Civil War general, congressman, diplomat who courted Queen Isabella II of Spain (a married woman) and the first to use the ‘temporary insanity plea’ for killing his first wife’s lover. He was later acquitted. Nice story, end of sentence!
Sickles, you say? Never heard of Daniel Edgar Sickles?
Join the club.
North Coast’s artistic director, David Ellenstein thought it was time we all did. So he brushed off the manuscript and Burns’ 1973 piece is finally making its world premiere on the Solana Beach stage through June 22nd. Sickles life, as we see it, reads like an adventure story laced with facts, some fiction, but funny, bold and witty enough to hold our attention and possibly want to do more research at a later time.
The story weaves through a period in his life, with flashbacks of his escapades that include some really odd and true to life characters that give us a picture of the now, grumpy old man who still commands attention and yes, has a lust for …well.
In those flashbacks we see the younger and fiery Sickles (Ben Cole) shooting his first wife’s lover. We get a visit from none other than the very inebriated Frank Butler (Ben Cole) Eleanor’s cousin. He is accompanied by his drinking buddy, the one and only John Barrymore, played here with panache by Bruce Turk, a San Diego favorite and long time Globe Festival regular. Turk has a picture perfect look with a swag that comes right out of central casting.
These brief interludes give us an idea of what the man was before we met up with him and gives us a better understanding of how we got to this particular and peculiar time in his life.
This real life general, or as some say the ‘amateur’ general was most noted for disobeying a military order on the battlefield that cost him the lives of his men on the one hand, and getting praises for the ‘preservation and development of Gettysburg National Park’ on the other. Throughout the play, “Faded Glory” we learn more about this quirky guy than perhaps we bargained for.
Marty Burnett’s fussy set with newspapers strewn, stacked and laying about draws our attention first. Later on Sickles makes sure we notice the skeleton bones of his lost leg and foot mounted and hanging over his bed as one of his trophies. (He later donated that specimen to the Medical Museum in a small coffin box). Staring us in the face is a dress form wearing a Union Blue Army General tunic. The rest of the place is scattered with memorabilia from his past.
Then the rest becomes clear. We are definitely in someone’s apartment, someone who likes collectables. That would be Sickles, beautifully played by the gravely voiced Andrew Barnicle who breathes life into this larger than life womanizer and scoundrel. The setting is his New York apartment in 1914 and Sickles is preparing to accept his long deferred Medal of Honor for his military service.
Sickles, who insists on being called General, lived to be in his nineties. “Faded Glory” picks up his story just before his death. With whatever life and zest he still possessed, in Burns’ retelling, this piece is about as entertaining, clever and funny as is possible considering there is so much more to him than can possibly be crammed into two hours.
Our first encounter with this this unpredictable, disgruntled old coot is when we see him being propelled in his wheelchair by his nurse/housekeeper/ confidant Eleanor (Shana Wride) into his living room. Slamming the door after him he shouts, “Slam the door. Slam the damn thing shut!”
After much huffing and puffing, we learn that his wife, whom he has not seen in 37 years (“The enemy is closing in.”), is trying to see him again. You can guess his reaction to this. He about has a hissy fit: “I don’t want to see her. She’s an old bag”. The ‘countess’ is by all accounts about 56 and has traveled from Spain to see him. (We catch their earlier romance in flashback)
She is on a quest to reunite. He’s on a mission to avoid at all costs. Burns characterizes her as ‘a religious mystic, an old world dowager’. She’s traveling with Father Ignacio (the busy Ben Cole) the Condesa’a confessor. Sickles impresses as anything but religious. Frances Anita Rivers is excellent as Condesa his estranged wife and as the exiled Queen Isabella II, another one of his conquests.
That said he is charmed by another peculiar drop in, Lenott Parlaghy (Rachael VanWormer) who has come to paint his portrait. Aside from the fact that she is a bit odd, she is also pioneer feminist as she unleashes the reason for her unusual dress. “I consider the conventional woman’s wardrobe unhygienic and unsafe”. Barnicle’s expression upon seeing her is worth the price of admission.
Sonia Elizabeth Lerner designed the period costumes that pretty much speak for themselves. Not so much with the artist, though. Parlaghy’s is in a class of its own with a high necked mans shirt with tie, long-sleeved dress that goes over it and all the way down to her knees with trousers underneath covering the rest of her legs. A floppy hat covers her head. Some getup, that. VanWormer is excellent as the fidgety and impatient portrait artist. She also takes a turn as Sickles' first wife in that brief encounter where Sickles (in flashback) shoots her lover, who just happens to be the son of Francis Scott Key. That one. The "Star Spangled Banner" one.
Finally, the one true to life and down to earth character in this entire set up is Shana Wride’s Eleanor. As Sickle’s right hand woman, Wride is on the spot matching Barnicle’s Sickles action for action and when she’s not speaking she is thoroughly engaged in what’s going on around her. At one point, she is seen changing the pillowcases on Sickle’s bed, primping it for her boss while he was otherwise engaged. Great touch.
Tim Burns, who until this play was unleashed and will most likely be picked up by other theatres, authored many teleplays: “Simon and Simon”, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”, “B.L. Stryker” and “Sliders” to name a few. “Faded Glory” is a chapter in American history most as mentioned above, had never heard of.
The playwright has also given us a bird’s eye view, convoluted and slim as it might be, into a quirky character’s well…quirky life. In the long run and after digesting all that it entailed, it is a proper yarn. It’s fun, informative, well spun and well done. Can’t ask for more than that for a night at the theatre.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 22nd
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Comedy/drama
Where: 957 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, St #D, Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $44.00