Cassandra Bissell and Reese Madigan star in "Amelia."
Cassandra Bissell and Reese Madigan star in "Amelia."

Renaissance creates absolute magic with Civil War-based "Amelia"

From "Romeo and Juliet" to "Love Story," the tale of youngsters who fall in love, only to see death and a search for meaning in it all is so often told that it seems to have become almost a cliche of itself.

But when that story gets mixed with history and put into the warm, smart and incredibly talented hands of a small coterie of very creative people, the story takes on a new meaning and creates the kind of theatrical magic that comes only on occasion.

That’s what happened when "Amelia" opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Saturday night.

To say that it was an evening of magic is to sell it short. It was the kind of production that gave hope to the heart, joy to the soul and a sorrow leavened by admiration and wonder. Under the careful and open-hearted direction of Laura Gordon, this tale is set on fire in the cauldron of the Civil War, burnished by the foolish journey of an unstoppable woman and extinguished by the anguish of being left behind with only memories and pride to carry you through the rest of your life.

Cassandra Bissell plays the title character, a woman of brains who runs her father’s dairy farm. She is determined to live her life on her own terms and won’t compromise just to get a man or to play the game of trying to get a man.

Reese Madigan plays Ethan, the man who wins her heart. He also plays countless other characters including both of her parents; Marie, a contemporary so-called friend who is tasteless in her desires for Ethan; a variety of both southern and northern soldiers; and Samuel, a black slave who helps Amelia in her journey.

After marrying, the war breaks out, and Ethan volunteers for what he promises will be just 90 days worth of fighting. Two and a half years later, the letters from Ethan have stopped, sending Amelia out on a perilous journey to find her husband.

It is a tortured journey as she chases rumor after rumor, report after report, mythical sightings and foes who vastly outnumber her allies. So many obstacles, both human and not, and so few steps that seem certain to end in happiness, and we are pulled along as if on a trolley upon a winding track.

Alex Webb wrote this play, and there is historic enlightenment to the whole thing. At one point, Amelia is in hiding with the slave, Samuel, and she tells him that this war is being fought for him, to end his days as a slave.

"All due respect, Ma’am," Samuel says. "But from what I see, that ain’t what this war is about. I’m pretty sure all them big men up in Washington don’t want to lose half of they land and all the cotton that comes with it. All this blood being spilt by white men? Ain’t for no black man, but for that 'white gold.'"

Gordon brings an actor’s sensibilities to her directing, and she guides this extraordinary production without getting in either Bissell or Madigan’s way. Perhaps the best thing a director can give to an actor is trust, and it’s obvious that Gordon trusts her actors and they, in turn, obviously trust her.

Jason Fassl, who designed and lit the show, may never have been more brilliant or creative. With a spare physical set, he created everything from a farmyard to a forest of trees to a forest of a war encampment tents to a field of grain to a prison yard where the denouement tunes our heartstrings taut and flicks them with a mythical guitar pick. And he does it all with rear projection and lights. Fassl is an amazing and generous talent.

Bissell is absolutely ravishing in as the never-say-die, smarter-than-a-whip Amelia. She has a physical grace that moves fluidly through a wide variety of situations and has the ability to infuse her petite size with the strength of ice-hardened steel. Her every emotion can be seen in her face and eyes and body, and her gifts are profound.

Madigan, an associate artist at the Rep, worked with Gordon last season in a memorable production of "Venus in Fur." He has a demanding job here, flitting from character to character, sometimes almost in the middle of a sentence. He never overdoes anything and is the master of good taste in each of his iterations.

Most of the time, the world of live theater is filled with all of the emotions of life, and it is almost always a thrilling experience and one well worth your time and money.

And, if you are lucky, occasionally something like "Amelia" at Renaissance comes along and you understand why art can, indeed, make our world a better place.

"Amelia" runs through Nov. 9 and showtimes and ticket information is available at Renaissance Theaterworks.

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