If there’s one characteristic I love about Soulpepper productions, it’s their willingness to explore, risk, and experiment with new elements of storytelling. Unfortunately, these experiments do not always bear the juiciest or ripest of fruit.
Father Comes Home From The Wars, directed by Weyni Mengesha, is a perfect example of a potentially great play that gets taken just a bit too far. Created as a means to examine America’s ongoing and turbulent relationship with race, this production sets up a platform filled with amazing potential that does not quite receive the justice it deserves.
The story is set during the American Civil War, following the steps of Hero (Dion Johnstone), an African-American slave tempted into fighting alongside his master, The Colonel (Oliver Dennis) for the Confederate army. This play is separated into three parts, which can be characterized as follows:
1) Hero deals with his internal battle on whether to reject the system that enslaves his people, or betray his cause for promise of freedom from his master’s service.
2) Hero, after following The Colonel into battle, is given an opportunity to flee, but instead frees a Union army prisoner of war and returns to his master’s side.
3) Hero comes home, only to discover that his wife, Penny (Lisa Berry) was on the verge of fleeing the plantation with his rival Homer (Daren A. Herbert), while simultaneously surprising everyone with the news that he found himself a wife as well.
I acknowledge that the brief synopsis above does not do full justice to the near-three-hour performance, but bear with me; I’ll provide more details. The truth is that Father Comes Home has a lot of powerful, eye-opening moments. When writing the play, Suzan-Lori Parks intended to express messages of ongoing African-American discrimination and systemic helplessness. Hero struggles to find what he really wants; the thought of freedom frightens him, as he has no idea what to do with it. Johnstone’s booming voice and rigid physicality further depict Hero’s inner torment.
The build-up of Hero’s Gordian knot all goes to waste, however, in Part III. From a climax of desperation, sadness, and confusion, Hero’s dog Odyssey (Peter Fernandes) runs in, tears down the fourth wall, and with it everything that Father Comes Home built up to at that point. I realize that Mengesha is not responsible for the script, but this portion definitely felt exaggerated in its ridiculousness.
At this point in the show, Penny had just learned that The Colonel died on the field of battle, with Hero most likely facing a similar fate. Homer finally convinces her to break her ties at the plantation and run away with him. Right at the climax of this emotional iceberg, Odyssey runs in (standing upright with no dog-like features) and rambles on about what happened on the field of battle for a solid five minutes until finally announcing that Hero is alive. Did I mention that he blatantly states that he’s a dog and he can talk?
Don’t get me wrong, humour is always needed and breaking a serious moment with a ridiculously comedic one has the potential for great story-telling practice, but it just didn’t work here. I hate to say it, but the last 30 minutes after Odyssey came on stage ruined what was up to that point a very strong production. I’m not saying Fernandes did a poor job depicting a slapstick character (if anything, he played the loyal fool quite well), I just think that there was a better way of ending it.
To make matters worse, the actors reacted naturally to Oddysey’s appearance and speech, making the scene unintentionally funny. It reminded me of Improv 101, where class is instructed not to say “no” and instead continue with whatever ridiculous idea the one random kid threw out for participation marks. Berry and Herbert held their characters very well, but it was just bizarre to see characters who were so emotionally ready to explode do a complete 180-degree-turn into a comedic reaction.
The straw that broke the camel’s back however, was the attempt to bring the audience back into a serious theme. In a matter of minutes, Hero showed up causing ecstatic joy, and casually bringing up his new wife, causing Penny and Homer to dramatically abandon the farm. Once again, I admit that the cast is not responsible for Parks’ script, but maybe if they took the ridiculousness of the script to heart, instead of taking their (albeit powerful) acting to the extreme, it may have turned for the better.
As a final remark, it is worth mentioning that Divine Brown hushed the audience in haunting silence whenever she sang out her ballads. As The Musician, Brown built into the play’s narrative with beautifully crafted tunes, bolstered by her awesome vocal talents.
Father Comes Home From Wars runs until Aug. 27 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit soulpepper.ca.