Kudos, in principle, to EgoPo Classic Theater and director Lane Savadove for staging the ambitious world premiere of Cold Harbor, the first part of John Guare's sprawling Lydie Breeze Trilogy. Each of the plays, in earlier versions and with different names, has been produced before, but never all three together. Requiring more than two dozen actor/musicians and support from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, it's a Philadelphia theater coup, the centerpiece of the company's season-long John Guare Festival.
Too bad, then, that the first play in the cycle, Cold Harbor, is such a slog – a messy, overlong, misshapen picaresque that mixes Civil War scenes with flashbacks to a Nantucket courtroom drama and a Moby-Dick-inspired whaling adventure. Trolling for thematic coherence, Guare (Six Degrees of Separation, The House of Blue Leaves) manages to name-check and/or quote Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Lord Byron, giving the play a literary as well as historical gloss.
At the center of this fractured saga, whose companion pieces will touch on American utopianism and the birth of 20th-century industrialism, is the eponymous Lydie Breeze. In Melanie Julian's unsubtle portrayal, Guare's protagonist is an often annoying Union Army nurse capable of spurts of heroism, but prone to poor judgment in matters of both commerce and morality.
On the fringes of the disastrously bloody 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor in Confederate Virginia, Lydie meets and inexplicably enchants a coterie of men, including the womanizing but well-fed Dan Grady (David Girard), the more soulful Joshua Hickman (Charlie DelMarcelle), and Joshua's bumpkin friend Amos Mason (Ed Swidey). Under Savadove's direction, all three men carve authentic moments from Guare's sometimes cartoonish script, as does the impressive Mark Knight as Lydie's father, Captain Breeze.
Lydie, as it happens, keeps a journal, chronicling not just her Civil War adventures, but also the events in Nantucket (re-enacted in dramatic detail) that led her to flee south. It turns out she is searching for a black cabin boy, Moncure (Jahzeer Terrell), who may hold the key to an apparent mutiny on her father's (and brother's) whaling vessel. Yet another contradictory set of flashbacks ensues when Lydie uncovers the captain's log of the journey.
Complemented by Mike Inwood's lighting, set designer Markéta Fantová has created a versatile, somewhat abstract playing space in the chilly Christ Church Neighborhood House that incorporates sand, wooden planks, boxes, ropes, and crosses. In the manner of story theater, its components assume myriad meanings, with the ropes doubling as bayonets, and the boxes metamorphosing into crates of medical supplies, beds, and, finally, a coffin. The haunting original score, by Cynthia Hopkins and music director Jay Ansill, draws on folk music and spirituals.
But why should we care about any of this? Perhaps the next parts, Aipotu and Home, said to be in entirely different theatrical styles, will answer that question. As it stands, though, the most inventive and satisfying aspect of Cold Harbor may be the Civil War-themed snacks in the lobby.