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 Baizleys, Mrs. California, now in a limited run at the 78th Street Theater Lab. Set in 1953, its 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 competitiona modern-day Civil War reenactmentbut both plays couldnt 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 Dowds 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 Scruggss 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 Unions cause.
Fight with your people for your people, Meg tells her. But Ranger Wilson wants nothing to do with Meg and Claras false idealism, and replies ironically that this isnt Glory they are filming, and she cant 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 plays 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 Acts 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 LucyGales 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 plays 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 shows 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.