In a word, it's big. Here in Philadelphia, a cast of 24 actors, plus a full allotment of directors, set designers, costumers, and so on, are committing to an epic, three-part cycle of history plays by an eminent American playwright that will take them from late January straight through to May – almost half a year of theater.
Called the Lydie Breeze trilogy, this project has been a-borning for 30 years, and the three plays have never been performed together. Now they will be, starting Jan. 31 at EgoPo Classic Theater. Just getting them here has been a heroic, 16-year effort by EgoPo artistic director Lane Savadove and others to line up funding, cast, and crew.
As you might imagine, the playwright is glad to see his trilogy, so long in coming, now here at last: "I'm delirious," says 79-year-old John Guare. "I just can't believe my good fortune." Guare is the author of Six Degrees of Separation, one of the few plays whose title has become part of the English language. He also wrote the American expressionist masterpiece House of Blue Leaves and the screenplay for the 1980 classic film Atlantic City. The Philly organizers are calling their undertaking the John Guare Festival.
Lydie Breeze will be staged by EgoPo at Christ Church Neighborhood House. The trilogy begins with Part I: Cold Harbor (Jan. 31-Feb. 11) and the unimaginable carnage of the Civil War battle of Cold Harbor. In Part II: Aipotu (March 7-18), a band of traumatized eyewitnesses to that battle struggle against circumstances, history, and themselves to create a utopian community. And in Part III: Home (April 11-22), we learn the fate of these people, their dreams, and perhaps the country itself.
In late April and early May, when all three plays have had their individual runs, audiences will have several opportunities to see the full cycle, either in three-day marathons or, for those with stamina and vision, one-day marathons.
Savadove and Guare go back to 1999, when they became friends while working on Guare's play Lake Hollywood in Minneapolis. "We talked a lot about his trilogy over the years, and I directed Part I when I was working in New Orleans," Savadove says. "Almost from the first, John was ready to offer me the rights to the whole thing. It's taken this long just to set it up."
And what a setup. "We're in repertory, rehearsing Part II while we're performing Part I. We all end up working 12- to 14-hour days," Savadove says. "The four main characters travel through all the plays, and everybody has to be able to sing and play an instrument." Composer, harpist, and fiddler Jay Ansill teams with performance artist and composer Cynthia Hopkins to fill the three plays with a tapestry of original American music.
Melanie Julian, who plays the fictional Lydie Breeze, speaks with me on a Monday, the actor's traditional day off. Is she already bushed? "I did treat myself to a massage this morning. I'm not going to lie to you," she says.
Along with acting, she's a full-time faculty member at Temple University, teaching a full load all spring. So she'll be shoveling exams and assignments while acting as the namesake of this vast drama. Some of her former students are in the cast. "It's a thrill that I'm getting to act with them," she says, "to see them get this opportunity."
Julian is full of admiration for Guare and the active role he's taken. "John was at our first two rehearsals and was present at the callback part of the auditions," she says. "It was very much Lane and John making final decisions on the casting. And John has been making changes, cuts, and adjustments in the script as we go along. It's very much a live, active script."
Fought on May 31-June 12, 1864, the Battle of Cold Harbor is sometimes credited for the invention of trench warfare, which later cast such a bloody shadow over the First World War. The horror resists understanding: Some 7,000 soldiers died in the first hour, most in the first 10 minutes. "Grant kept sending wave after wave of soldiers against the Confederates," Guare says, "creating mountains of bodies. Lydie is part of the nursing team, and she and they are trying to save who they can. These people, the eyewitnesses, the survivors, they are fighting for their lives, and they're in the middle of hell."
Julian says she is struck by the character of Lydie, who goes on to lead a utopian movement: "She's thrown into her war work, and besides is carrying the trauma of her father's death. To have those and yet sustain a vision that you can make the world a better place — I'm still working on doing that justice."
Guare says he was drawn to the Civil War out of a fascination with the 19th-century world of his parents and grandparents. "The idea of America and the idea of a utopia went hand in hand, from the moment the pilgrims set sail," he says. "That amazement, this sacred new place where anything was possible, drove people there at the risk of their lives. You could do something in America you couldn't do in Belgium or England — reach up and touch the universe."
So began the transcendental movement in U.S. arts and philosophy, so admirably sung in Camden bard Walt Whitman's "On the Beach at Night Alone":
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets …
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds …
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.
"We begin and end the trilogy with that," Guare says.
This feeling that human life could be made perfect and at one with the universe wasn't just a cloudy, poetic idea. Real people in the mold of Lydie Breeze built towns and communities in hope of living the transcendental life.
That's both very American, Guare says, and very sad. "Other American values, such as self-reliance, pull against this oceanic notion that all things are one.
"That's the problem that keeps breaking the Union. It can't bear the tension. Self-reliance leads to slavery and Jim Crow, to an Ayn Rand fantasy." And the utopia totters. That is the drama of Lydie Breeze.
"This is so momentous for me," Guare says. "At rehearsals, I was listening to Part I, and it's been so long since I've heard the play. It was rather thrilling, the joy of coming back to this part of myself, like an old friend."