There are many remarkable things about “Shiloh Rules,” and the first is the front door. It leads into the Charlotte Art League, where you browse among paintings, sculptures and photographs before the show and get a sense of guerrilla theater at work: You’re in a new space, an odd space, and you look at everything with fresh eyes.
The second is the gender of the cast: Six women in a play about a male-dominated field, Civil War re-enactment. Donna Scott Productions often does plays populated mostly or entirely by women, but this seems unusual even for her troupe.
The third is the production itself: minimal as to props and set, deftly handled for sound and lighting effects, marked by actors’ exits behind temporary side curtains or down aisles within a few inches of patrons’ outstretched legs.
The New York Times described Doris Baizley’s play as “an inventive comedy” when it debuted there in 2006, but its Charlotte premiere seems more dramatic than funny.
We smile at the frustrations of a park service ranger (Darlene Parker) who can’t get people to admit they’re not living 150 years ago, or at the hucksterism of a widow (Donna Scott) who sells modern canteens distressed by urine and gunpowder for faux authenticity.
More often, though, we’re touched by the nurse re-enactor (Celeste Marcone) who wants to understand the heroism that impelled the Union troops forward, or the Confederate sympathizer (Polly Adkins) who seems a ghost in the 21st century: She’s so caught up in the cause of the old South that modern life scarcely has meaning for her. (Of course, as the African-American ranger explains, one of the rights being fought for was the right to own people of her hue.)
Young women on both sides, who signed up because they needed academic credit (Glynnis O’Donoghue) or escape from office work (Stephanie Gardner), have their eyes opened to the horrors of the battlefield they re-create and the value of bravery and comradeship.
Director Tonya Bludsworth, who co-produced with Scott and O’Donoghue, makes sure small actions carry weight. That’s easy to do in so intimate a space. Sight lines aren’t always good – you’ll keep moving your folding chair if you sit at the back, as the tiny stage is on your level – but you’re so close you can see everything that happens.
And the cast is well-balanced. If Gardner and Marcone stood out Thursday, it’s because the former brought the most underwritten role to life, and the latter (who’s returning to the stage after years away) handled the most grandly histrionic scenes with ease.
Female historical re-enactors (and one annoyed park ranger) take the field for a re-creation of the Tennessee battle. Deeper than you’d expect.
WHEN: Through March 14 at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.
WHERE: Charlotte Art League, 1517 Camden Road
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or carolinatix.org.