Volume 18 • Issue 45 | March 24 - 30, 2006

Theater

“Shiloh Rules”
By Doris Baizley
Performed by Flying Fig Theater
Opens March 24
Gene Frankel Theater
24 Bond Street, near Lafayette
(212-868-4444; flyingfig.org)

Photo by Kila Packett

Fightin’ words: actresses Samarra and Gwen Eyster face off in the satirical “Shiloh Rules,” a play about a Civil War reenactment.

In “Shiloh Rules,” no one is civil

By Rachel Breitman

“To hell with Yankee bitches,” declares Southern firebrand LucyGale Scruggs (Judi Lewis Oker) in “Shiloh Rules,” one of the many barbs slung in this social satire by playwright Doris Baizley. Its opening coincides with another play of Baizley’s, “Mrs. California,” now in a limited run at the 78th Street Theater Lab. Set in 1953, it’s a humorous retelling of a real-life competition among West Coast wives who try to outdo each other with their superior homemaking skills.

“Shiloh Rules,” focuses on another competition—a modern-day Civil War reenactment—but both plays couldn’t be more timely. The sharp remarks thrown back and forth between cast members vary only slightly from the holier-than-thou diatribes that appear regularly in Maureen Dowd’s editorials or online at the chat site Urbanbaby.com. The only difference is, the women in “Shiloh Rules” are exchanging them in a dusty Tennessee park during a make believe, bloody Civil War battle.

As they compete for the prize of “best female reenactor,” the women dredge up century-old hatred with a modern red state/blue state twist. Shortly after Scruggs’s “Yankee bitches” comment, which she makes in reference to the snobby Northerners who build expensive summer houses in the South, fair-haired Bostonian nursing student Meg Barton taunts LucyGale for her patchwork dress, asking her if she bought it at Wal-Mart.

Meg and her mentor Clara (Kate Weiman) pose as nurses who are educated, stoic, and proud of their Northern heritage, while LucyGale is guided by aging Southern belle Cecelia (Cordis Heard), who reminds her that Southern girls of her time would be illiterate. Thrown into the mix are huckster Widow Beckwith (Gwen Eyster), who sells reenactment memorabilia and tries to stay neutral amid the petty regional disagreements, and African American Park Ranger Wilson (Samarra), who is encouraged to join the Union’s cause.

“Fight with your people for your people,” Meg tells her. But Ranger Wilson wants nothing to do with Meg and Clara’s false idealism, and replies ironically that this isn’t “Glory” they are filming, and she can’t so easily slip into a past where she would have even less agency than the illiterate, dispossessed Southern white refugees.

“Being me is no hobby,” she says, in one of the play’s best lines.

The first half of “Shiloh Rules” illustrates these conflicts with a heavy but witty hand. While nothing surprises about the dialogue, the characters do manage to stay original and break free of regional and racial stereotypes. But the Second Act’s easy resolutions seem suspect. After casting off the simplicity of both Southern and Northern reenactors, Ranger Wilson is a little too casually moved to don a Union uniform, and her exultant dialogue about winning the war seems out of character.

Faced with actually having to mend LucyGale’s wounded hand, Meg too has a pat epiphany about the similarities between the two women, noticing that regional identity and education mean nothing in the face of war.

Even the tenured elder reenactors are shaken by the grizzly war scene, and the solemn way they show respect for each other at the play’s end suggests that after replaying the same scenes again and again, they may have finally learned something.

But the huckster Widow Beckwith, whose nonpartisan, comic character is the least well-defined, is surprisingly the one most ready to make a change by the show’s end.

After watching so many Civil War battles, she declares that she thinks she has found her new calling — a reenactment of life on the Oregon Trail.



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