Opus 1861 at City Lit Theater | Theater review
A heartfelt revue bridges the Civil War and the war in Afghanistan.
Elizabeth Margolius and Terry McCabe created this original chamber piece by combining 20 Civil War–era songs with excerpts from letters written by soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The implication is that although the conflicts differ in how, when, where and why they were fought (or, in the case of Afghanistan, continue to be fought), certain aspects of war stay the same. Whether the battle takes place in Vicksburg or Kandahar, there are bound to be young people risking their lives and folks at home worried that they won’t come back.
The show—performed by four men and two women in modern-day combat fatigues—is best when Margolius and McCabe stick to generalities like those. In between performances of 19th-century tunes like “When This Cruel War Is Over” and “Hard Times Come Again No More,” we hear from 21st-century service members, whose letters express homesickness, a willingness to die for a cause they believe in and sorrow over fallen comrades. Efforts to find resonances across time are undermined, however, when the production raises issues specific to only one of the conflicts. Under the circumstances, hymns about the abolition of slavery and passages about the friendliness of the Afghan people feel out of context.
The cast’s musical performances are better than their readings of the letters, to which they give an unvarying, aw-shucks interpretation. The songs, though, are beautifully sung, with intricate harmonies and simple arrangements that never fail to achieve the desired effect, whether mournful or rousing.