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Walt Whitman's War

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THE WOUND-DRESSER

Terrapin Theatre

at Sheffield's School Street Cafe

We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You can't confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York. . . . He is a great fellow. --Henry Thoreau writing about Walt Whitman

When Thoreau's "great fellow" left us--exactly a century ago, on March 26, 1892--it seemed a real death in the family: Walt Whitman was mourned by his devoted readers as fervently as he had mourned Lincoln 25 years before. What Thoreau couldn't have known is the way that five generations who never got to meet Whitman have nonetheless come to prize him: as an authentic American bard, the singer of himself and of us, the celebrator of the open road and heart, the boon companion whose rollicking and cadenced catalog of people and things captured the hopeful bustle of a bumptious America. He remains a great fellow and, his homosexuality aside, our most representative poet.

Based on Whitman's Civil War poems, The Wound-Dresser--Terrapin Theatre's debut production--is director Charles Pike's well-wrought tribute to Walt's work as a male nurse in the Union hospitals. Whitman powerfully documented his painful experiences in the vivid tableaux of his Drum Taps collection (1865), in the homoerotic "Calamus" section of Leaves of Grass (where the poet describes the "adhesive love" he has for men), and in the moving letters he wrote, pouring out his feelings as he consoled dying soldiers and encouraged the survivors.

Like the letters, the poems in The Wound-Dresser chart Whitman's changing attitudes to the war--from an initial jingoism to a growing desire to portray the carnage as realistically as possible. Vivid enough to paint from, the poems are powerful pictorial reporting. (Unfortunately, we never got such fervent witnessing of the Persian Gulf conflict--unless there was some Iraqi Whitman who chronicled those slaughters.) Whitman describes his changing intentions in the 1881 poem that gives the play its name: "Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war, / But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself / To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead."

Whitman began working as a hospital attendant after his brother George was wounded in 1862. Though he was only in his early 40s, to the young soldiers Whitman seemed a grizzled patriarch, and finally a benevolent father figure--tending their dressings, reading letters from home and writing letters back, and receiving deathbed declarations--"vigil for boy of responding kisses, (never again on earth responding)." Above all, this informal, gentle, and resourceful man refused to preach to the injured--he was as good a listener as a writer. Years later, ex-soldiers would stop Whitman on the street and hug and kiss him, and many of those he helped corresponded with him for years afterward.

The 50-minute Wound-Dresser warmly conveys all this with the rich mix of conversational verse Pike has concocted, the projections of battlefield photographs, and a haunting score composed and arranged by Christopher Walz. (At its best, this quiet show evokes the melancholy vitality of Ken Burns's matchless 1990 documentary, The Civil War.) The mood is set by the fine opening chorale, a jarring medley of sentimental ballads and militant anthems sung by the six cast members as they rise like Lazarus from beneath the corpse-blankets that cover them.

Three strong performances do much to reveal the drama Whitman compressed into his testaments. In "Beat! Beat! Drums!" W. Whitney Spurgeon does stentorian justice to the poet's sabre-rattling, pro-Union fervor--the bloody results of which Whitman would also record. Jonathan Lavan underlines the loss in "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," a heartbreaking lament over the waste of a young soldier's life: "I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, / And buried him where he fell." With a naturalness that Whitman would have savored, Carrie Chantler recites "Eighteen Sixty-one," a cascading litany of Whitman's fulsome (and doomed) hopes for a quick and righteous conclusion to the war.

The other performers are altogether too subdued: either they have yet to rise to the material or they're not strong enough to overcome the distractions from Sheffield's bar. Though Kevin Hackett certainly resembles the Civil War Walt physically, his hesitant delivery, slurred diction, energy lapses, and failure to project hardly suggest Walt's "barbaric yawp." Wade Childress deadens his lines with a zombielike delivery: he mumbles the power out of "By the Bivouac's Fitful Flame," and never seems to see what he's saying in the very detailed "A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest." Jenifer L. Weber tends to efface herself, delivering her lines as if they're secrets she doesn't want to share.

But nothing here has gone irredeemably wrong. Once all six actors are on firmer ground and refuse to concede even a single line to the noise from the bar, The Wound-Dresser will hit its mark. As it is, it's well worth a Whitman lover's visit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Whitney Spurgeon.

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