Distilled portrait

MSMT’s  Chamberlain pays faithful homage
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  July 10, 2014

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POACHED FROM THE HISTORY BOOKS Joshua Chamberlain leads the Twentieth Maine (Judy Beedle Photography)

Perhaps the most revered war hero of Maine is Civil War general Joshua Chamberlain, a volunteer enlistee who later served as president of Bowdoin and governor of the state. Generations of Maine children have learned about Chamberlain’s critical flank defense at Gettysburg, and about his nobility in saluting surrendering Confederates. In both the state’s cultural memory and the epic autobiographical musical Chamberlain: a Civil War Romance, the beloved Mainer stands larger than life. Marc Robin directs an animated, beautifully appointed production at the Maine State Music Theatre, in Brunswick, on the very campus where Chamberlain spent much of his life.

Chamberlain opens with letters from home being read by the soldiers of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top Hill, where Chamberlain (the fine James Patterson) will soon lead a critical victory for the Union. Chamberlain has in his regiment the company of his younger brothers, rascally John (Ben Mayne) and sickly chaplain Tom (Sam Weber), but he has left behind his headstrong wife Fannie (Kathy Voytko), who is going blind and has made an aggressive plea against his absence. Through flashbacks, Chamberlain surveys the man’s war-troubled romance with Fannie, his honorable military career, and the eclipsing force that battle proves even in his post-war life.

MSMT’s handsome production boasts gorgeous costumes, from blue uniforms on the battlefield to shimmering jewel-toned gowns at inauguration, with evocative tableaux and choreography of soldiers both in action and at leisure. Battle scenes roil in haze, riddled with flares of gunfire, while tall, elegant walls slide together to conjure buildings of the Bowdoin campus. The frames around backdrops—a sun-caught forest, the spires of Bowdoin’s King’s Chapel—suggest a haloed memorializing by both Chamberlain’s admirers and himself.

The impressive ensemble portrays soldiers, mothers, townspeople, and bluestockings, and all voices are strong, supple, and expressive. Mike Schwitter gives a haunting, sonorous performance as a Confederate soldier moved to spare Chamberlain, and the characterizations of the hero’s brothers and his wife are rich and rife with ambivalence: Voytko’s Fannie has an arresting, strident voice that veers from brazen to shrill to desperate; and Mayne and Weber create a scrappy fraternal dynamic that’s now stooge-ish comic relief, now affecting.

Chamberlain himself, in Patterson’s sympathetic hands and powerful voice, has the measured, righteous humility of the legend, and Patterson owns the profile, gravitas, and distinctive ‘stache. He looks much like the portrait. And his character, as drawn by Sarah Knapp’s script, behaves much like one, as he ages stoically from eager young choirmaster to stooped, grey elder. While Fannie and his brothers descend occasionally into unattractive acts, and while the show doesn’t shy from the agony that Chamberlain’s principles inspire in his ailing wife, we never see him engage in the mundane or less than admirable. He comes across less as a developed character than an amplified legend.

Likewise, despite the script’s worthy attempts to explore greyer areas—a female perspective on war, a veteran’s post-war struggles of body and purpose—Chamberlain ultimately serves as a vehicle of historical commemoration. As such, the show’s humbler emotional life at times feels broadly sketched; the script is sometimes burdened with exposition and overly general lyrics. In contrast, the most wrenching moments of the show are the smallest, as when an aged Chamberlain bends slowly, painfully, to pick up the hat thrown by his drunken brother, or when a simple gesture from Fannie, met with her wounded husband’s rigidity, suggest their more intimate, conjugal war losses. The show would be richer with more of these.

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