Lawrence Toppman

‘Father Comes Home’ (but doesn’t know best)

A Greek-style chorus (JR Jones, Bobby Tyson, Nicole D. Watts and Ron McClelland) confer in “Father Comes Home from the Wars.”
A Greek-style chorus (JR Jones, Bobby Tyson, Nicole D. Watts and Ron McClelland) confer in “Father Comes Home from the Wars.” George Hendricks Photography

“Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).”

But why “father” in the title of Suzan-Lori Parks’ drama, now getting its regional premiere at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte? Is Hero, a conflicted slave during the Civil War, the metaphoric parent of African-Americans today?

And why “wars”? Only one act takes place anywhere near a battlefield, and we see no combat. Is “wars” also metaphoric, a hint at the internal battles the characters have to fight?

Hero (Jonavan Adams), who once betrayed escaping slave Homer (Jeremy DeCarlos), wrestles with his conscience and the idea that his master may never set him free, even if he serves the rebel cause faithfully.

Penny (April D. Jones), Hero’s wife, feels drawn to Homer in her husband’s absence but stays emotionally (if not physically) faithful. Homer, whose master cut off his foot as punishment, longs to make another dash – but is freedom worthwhile, if Penny won’t come?

Parks gives readers much to chew on, as fans of her Pulitzer-winning “Topdog/Underdog” know. (“Father” was a Pulitzer finalist last year.) But she doesn’t give many clues, and she enjoys anachronisms: Characters carry a bag with peace symbols, wear a do-rag and say “True that.” Those details make the people timeless, presumably, though they live in the 1860s.

Parks brings an ancient Greek element to the fore. Penny is Penelope, the wife fending off suitors until Ulysses – as Hero renames himself in honor of the Union commander – returns. Homer, whose view of events becomes our own, stands in for the epic poet.

Three runaway slaves (JR Jones, Nicole A. Watts and Ron McClelland) become a Greek chorus, commenting on action while being a part of it. There’s even a comic talking dog named Odyssey (Bobby Tyson). It’s as if Parks is constructing her own American mythology while saying, “Don’t take this too seriously, folks.”

Sidney Horton has directed with maximum urgency yet found a way to make seriousness and humor coexist uncomfortably, which Parks surely wants.

Acts 1 and 3 take place on the farm of Hero’s master, whom we meet only in Act 2. The Colonel (Craig Spradley) has captured a Union captain (Stephen Seay), whom he expects to bring back to the Confederate camp. The Colonel comes off as a tolerable old reprobate with a reasonably human attitude toward his prisoner, until he strikes Hero capriciously and delivers a paean to white skin.

Parks sustains two visual themes. The first is woundedness: Homer limps from his maiming, the captain has a bullet in his bloody thigh and can’t get around; Hero contemplates sacrificing a foot to keep off the battlefield. Other characters, whose injuries aren’t as obvious, have been crippled in some way – even the Colonel, whose ignorance leads him to war.

The second is darkness, abetted by Hallie Gray’s subtle lighting. The show begins just before dawn, as characters await a revelation; it ends just before dusk, as the runaways prepare to bolt. Daylight brings tragedy, but darkness offers new possibilities and hope – truly a world turned upside down.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)

When: Through March 12 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, 650 E. Stonewall St.

Running time: 170 minutes with two intermissions.

Tickets: $29-$33.

Details: 704-342-2251; www.atcharlotte.org.

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