"Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
The past is always present and vice versa in "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," now making a startling and extremely moving Chicago debut at the Goodman Theatre.
Set amid the tumult of Civil War, this 2014 Pulitzer finalist drama by Suzan-Lori Parks ("Topdog/Underdog," "Venus") also looks further back to Homer's ancient Greek epic "The Odyssey" for inspiration.
Yet, at the same time, "Father Comes Home From the Wars" is unsettlingly contemporary. That's due in large part to Park's playful and powerful text.
When she's not throwing in plenty of funny magical-realist flourishes (BrittneyLove Smith is hilarious as a wise and talking dog in Part 3 -- honest!), Park infuses her play with uncomfortable questions about historical and contemporary American clashes on race, class and gender.
The three one-act plays are each centered around a Texas plantation slave named Hero (a marvelous and heartfelt Kamal Angelo Bolden). Hero's actions and views constantly bring into question whether he truly lives up to his name.
Framing each play is the guitar-strumming Musician (Chicago native blues artist Melody Angel). She's a modern-day interloper who both comments on and observes the action, hearkening back to the long oral storytelling history of "The Odyssey" before it was written down.
In Part 1, the plantation slaves are in an uproar (and taking bets) over Hero's alarming free agency to choose whether to stay home or fight in the war. Hero's master has promised his freedom if he serves faithfully as a Confederate soldier/valet. Yet Hero's embittered fellow slave, Homer (Jaime Lincoln Smith), has horrific reasons to question whether their master can be held to his word.
Part 2 is more intimate. It's just Hero, the pompous and unashamedly racist Colonel (William Dick, balancing comedy and menace), and the injured and captured Union Captain Smith (Demetrios Troy, whose expressions of pain and defiance are commendable). The Colonel and Smith make uncomfortable small talk over why the Civil War is being fought, and even go so far as to debate the literal value of Hero. Smith also startles Hero with talk of freedom.
Once that freedom arrives in Part 3 via news of the Emancipation Proclamation, things get even muddier as Hero returns home to his partner, Penny (a dignified Aimé Donna Kelly). Park may be using "The Odyssey" as inspiration, but she also upends its old patriarchal views by introducing shocking plot twists that genuinely reflect how all rules are off during wartime.
Director Niegel Smith's production of "Father Comes Home From the Wars" is packed with superlative performances. The actors convincingly navigate Park's myriad styles of acting, whether as a presentational and rhythmic Greek Chorus or with naturalistic one-on-one emotion.
Smith's production is visually and symbolically stark. For instance, the action plays out against two massive gray granite-looking Confederate flags serving as both a backdrop and the stage floor -- a likely nod by set designer Courtney O'Neill to America's many contested Confederate monuments. Costume designer Linda Cho also hammers home historical and contemporary parallels by using correctional facility orange as the dominant color for the slaves' otherwise period clothing. She injects hope by cloaking the three Runaway Slaves in variations on the Stars and Stripes.
My only qualm for the Goodman's "Father Comes Home From The Wars" is that it should be playing in the larger Albert Theatre rather than the more intimate Owen space. Park's hard-hitting historical epic is worthy of a far larger canvas and deserves a bigger audience to drink in all its poetry, drama and wisdom.
• • •
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodman theatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (also June 12 and 17); 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (also June 21); 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through June 24
Running time: About 3 hours, 15 minutes, including two intermissions
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For mature audiences; includes scenes of violence, as well as occasional strong language and racial epithets