Peter Coy’s new play A Shadow of Honor strives to explore the impact of the stresses of war both directly on its participants and indirectly on their loved ones. He portrays two families living a century apart, inhabiting the same home in Nelson County, Virginia. It is an intriguing idea, but one that only has mixed success in its world premiere production at the Keegan Theatre.
1907: William Ruffin (Mark Rhea) is a bitter Civil War survivor who clings to an ideal of Southern honor. He imagines that he will be able to reclaim both his wife Caroline’s (Sheri S. Herren) farm and his gentleman status, while also imagining that his twenty year-old daughter Grace (Emily Levey) is a delicate flower of Southern nobility.
In practice, however, Ruffin is far from the ideal of a Southern gentleman. When he heads off to confront a young man he believes has offered physical insult to Grace, he first picks up a pair of dueling pistols before opting instead for a double-barreled shotgun. He then insists that his attorney Aubrey Strode (Jon Towson) rely upon a defense based upon honor from the ensuing criminal prosecution.
The play offers the theory that Ruffin was shaped as a child by exposure to the Civil War in general and the Battle of Cedar Creek in particular. Cedar Creek is the thread that connects Ruffin’s tale to the 2007 story of Tyler McNeill, whose ancestor fought in that battle with famed Confederate raider Col. Mosby.
Tyler (Michael Innocenti), a history teacher, has moved into the Ruffin family farmhouse. He has a nice relationship with his very pregnant wife Kathy (Shannon Listol) but is starting to worry about his capacity to be a good father. He becomes obsessed with a book that indicates a mother’s exposure to stress can impact the development of the brain of a fetus, which may have affected Tyler himself since he was born while his psychologically damaged father was back home from his first Viet Nam tour of duty.
Telling two different stories in the course of a play is challenging enough. The diminished time for each story can shortchange character development and rush the plot. In A Shadow of Honor, the problem is exacerbated by the extent of time devoted to telling the story of Tyler’s relationship with his father and his father’s Viet Nam experience. This substantial amount of exposition may be dramatically important, but detracts from the primary drama. The play rushes to make Tyler a psychological basket case who drinks excessively, cries in class, and snaps at his wife. At one point Tyler asks “Where is all this coming from? I’m a mess.” It’s a question that puzzles the audience as well.
The parallels between the two stories become increasingly obvious, even without the points that are frequently summarized by the characters. Yet despite the historical, familial, and thematic connections between two tales, they fail to achieve the desired synergistic impact.
The Keegan production gives A Shadow of Honor every chance to succeed. Director Matthew Keenan keeps the action switching smoothly between the two stories. The characters make overlapping entrances and exits into the home, with the Ruffins keeping mostly stage right while the McNeills stay mostly on the slightly more modern left side of the stage. The farmhouse itself is a convincing backdrop with an old fireplace, smoke-tinged and weathered walls, and a table with three chairs in the center (set design by George Lucas).
Similarly, it is hard to fault any members of the cast. Aside from the scenes where Tyler is engaging in his forced psychological breakdowns, Innocenti and Listol have a fine rapport as the young couple. The actors in the earlier tale do their best to give depth to their deeply Southern characters.
A Shadow of Honor contains the germ of a good play and the Keegan Theatre production is not without enjoyable dramatic sequences. The play ends with a satisfyingly hopeful note. If the stories were told with more nuance and delicacy, the drama might have been more satisfying and the audience could have enjoyed linking the themes themselves.
A Shadow of Honor
Written by Peter Coy
Directed by Matthew Keenan
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission