Children of War
Sierra Madre Playhouse produces three Civil War-themed shows aimed at student theater fans
By Carl Kozlowski 03/25/2014
Hollywood has long used the bucolic small town of Sierra Madre as a setting for an earlier, simpler time, akin to those depicted by painter Norman Rockwell. But at the town’s beloved Sierra Madre Playhouse, three current shows are combining to take visitors back to an even earlier time: The Civil War.
The lead production of the three shows is the world premiere of “Battledrum,” a musical drama in which Rufus, a war orphan, finds himself pressed into duty as a drummer boy, alongside Jackson, a Yankee bound into service by his parents, and George Washington, a slave who got lost on the Underground Railroad.
The action-packed play with original songs explores themes of courage, brotherhood and patriotism, while also addressing the issue of children’s service in wartime — which was seen as an honorable necessity in that era but has become much more insidious in the modern world. Each performance is followed by a Q&A hosted by a Civil War historian.
“Battledrum” is backed by “The Player King,” a solo performance show in which its writer-star Darin Dahms portrays infamous Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and the two male family members who were closest to him: his father, Junius Brutus Booth, and his brother Edwin, who is regarded as perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor in American history. Beyond that, the Playhouse is hosting two benefit performances of “Glory Hallelujah,” in which a collection of songs and letters from the Civil War are brought to life once again.
The theatrical trio marks an ambitious new direction for the Playhouse, which has been open since 1979 and has a reputation as a standard community theater, even as “Battledrum” director and Playhouse Board member Christian Lebano says it has long delivered on a much higher level.
“I think it’s important to put a play in its full context and give people a real understanding of the world it creates and the message it’s sending,” says Lebano, 53, an Eagle Rock resident whose 8-year-old son has displayed an enthusiastic response to the play even after multiple viewings.
“Especially in a time when live theater is losing audiences and we’re trying to expand ours, providing people with something extra when they come see a show — whether it’s a post-show discussion or a whole other experience like our other shows now — helps us stand out from the mediated experiences of a movie theatre or a TV show.”
The current shows also create a valuable new revenue source for the theater with this being the first time the Playhouse has ever presented student matinee showings of its productions. Lebano says that the process of opening a broad production schedule to area schools took nearly a year. He had to decide which schools to approach and how, and then schedule their performance dates before applying for grants since he did not want to charge public schools to attend.
“It was all hugely labor intensive, but now we have the framework and we’re going to keep doing it,” says Lebano. “We’re negotiating for next year’s play still, but many teachers already said they’ll be back. We want to find another historic play in a 65-, 70-minute timeframe that’s appealing to teachers and personally appealing to me as an adult, not just simple moral [public service announcements]. Kids know that they’re being spoken to that way. It has to stand on its own and have a story and moral context on its own.”
Nevertheless, Lebano feels all the hard work has paid off every time he sits with a school group and sees the reactions of young minds transported into another era, learning about history through a vital performance in the present.
“I’ve seen it now at four of the matinees and lots of the evenings, and young people really eat it up,” says Lebano. “The young men on stage are playing younger boys, but show the attitude of what these boys are going through and dealing with. The best way to watch the show is with school groups attending, but we offer weekend performances so whole families can come. Kids are saying they’ll tell their whole family to come. It’s a great way to market your play and the theater experience.”
“Battledrum” is playing through April 19. Tickets are $12 to $25. “The Player King” is performed at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $12 to $25. “Glory Hallelujah” is performed at 8 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. April 13. Tickets are $12 to $25. All threes shows are at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Drive, Sierra Madre. Visit sierramadreplayhouse.com or call (626) 355-4318.