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Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (11/17/2003 - 11/17/2003)


AP: "'Widow' Makes Stodgy Impression"

Mercy, 99-year-old Lucy Marsden goes on and on and on.

Well, the woman has had quite a life. Unfortunately, it's one that gets relived rather laboriously in "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," a stodgy stage adaptation by Martin Tahse of Allan Gurganus' lengthy, best-selling novel.

This one-woman show, which opened Monday at Broadway's Longacre Theatre, is a meandering memory play, delivered by Ellen Burstyn in a quaint, folksy manner that suggests a Norman Rockwell portrait by way of a kinder, gentler Granny Clampett.

"Not to brag, folks, but stories only happen to the people who can tell them," says Lucy at the beginning of the evening as she sits in a nursing home ominously called Lane's End and chats with an unseen audience. And, boy, does she have a lot of stories, beginning with her marriage at age 15 to a 50-year-old Civil War veteran, Capt. Willie Marsden.

It was a union born out of ignorance on her part, although she eventually had eight children - mostly, it seems, out of duty than anything else. Not that you hear a lot about them, except for the one accidentally blinded by his father in a shooting accident.

For much of the play, Lucy tells the story of her husband who was 13 when he joined the Confederate army as it marched through his small North Carolina town and carried him off to war.

It was the Civil War - more than his marriage or anything else – that defined Willie's life. His longevity gave him a notoriety that his turbulent domestic life didn't. The war also haunted him, particularly the death of his best friend, Ned, killed by a Yankee soldier while the lad frolicked in a Virginia swimming hole.

Yet Willie had other demons, too: Castalia, a one-time slave, a proud, defiant woman, who stayed on after the war to work for Willie and who forged a strange bond with the woman he married. And then there was Willie's mother, a fragile creature, nearly done in by Union troops when they torched the family plantation.

It's not that these stories aren't interesting. Some are, but they would be better off read in order to savor the rich detail that Garganus' book provides. Director Don Scardino's straightforward direction plops the star down center stage and she rarely moves, adding to the static nature of the piece. It doesn't help either that the nursing-home décor by Allen Moyer is depressingly realistic.

Burstyn, wearing ringlets of white curls, looks far too young for this ancient, flinty woman and her sunny, almost radiant smile often seems at odds with the essentially sour tale of a marriage endured rather than cherished.

The actress also has a difficult time with the various accents –from slave to soldier to Willie to Lucy. "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" may give you a mess of vivid details, but Lucy and the parade of people she encountered never really come to life at all.


New York Daily News: "Burstyn's effort 'All' for naught"

Ellen Burstyn's one-woman show based on the 1989 best seller "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" is, I suppose, a tribute to will.

Burstyn has employed the entire arsenal of what she has learned as an actress, which is formidable, to make a drama from a rambling, largely comic narrative.

Like its title, the novel, by Alan Gurganus, from  which Martin Tahse has written the script, has a  facetious tone as it describes the life of Lucy on a trifle.

Marsden, a woman who was 15 in 1899 when she married a 50-year-old Confederate army veteran.

At one point, for example, Lucy compares herself to Barbara Stanwyck, "tough, but kind underneath." It's a reference that seems more like that of a wisecracking Yankee than a woman born in the Old South.

Sometimes she tells stories of Civil War battles as her late husband used to tell them. For these moments, Burstyn adopts her husband's low voice. At one point, in fact, she jokes that she has to revert to her own voice: "Doing him wears me down."

Sometimes the stories deal with historical moments, like the return of an escaped slave in irons. Sometimes they are merely domestic, as she tell about one of her eight children, who is blind. (At one point, she compares their first fight to the firing on Fort Sumter.)

The stories have a breezy charm, and Burstyn relates them with sustained intensity. But there is no spine to hold it all together; nothing to make the evening compelling.

Allen Moyer's set of Lucy's nursing home room is full of distractions, compounded by occasional projections on the back wall to set the scene during Lucy's 19th-centuty flashbacks.

The overall effect is diffuse - lively but unfocused, as if memories of one of the most momentous events in our history were no more substantial than a sitcom.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "Dixie Chick Blabs On"

Ellen Burstyn opened at the Longacre Theatre last night in her one-woman play, "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All." And all. And then some.

With a rosy smile, an accent redolent of molasses and a sassy mien, Burstyn seemed more like a spry 70-year-old than the 99-year-old Lucy Marsden she was meant to portray.

Martin Tahse's play, adapted from the best-selling novel by Allan Gurganus, has Lucy toward the end of her life in 1985, telling a charity benefit audience at an Old Person's Home about her 1899 marriage, at age 15, to a 50-year-old Civil War veteran.

As Lucy points out early on, in what is perhaps the only truly insightful line of the play, "stories only happen to people who can tell them." It's wickedly cynical but contains a kernal of truth.

Most of the stories didn't actually happen to Lucy but to her long-dead husband, Capt. Willie Marsden, known as Cap, of the Confederate Army. And some of the stories doubtless didn't happen even to the fictional Willie - or were markedly retouched in detail and amplified in fact.

For starters, Willie was never actually a captain in the Army, but a private. It seems he promoted himself by, as it were, incremental anecdote, and eventually it became an accepted fact, with a captain's grand gray uniform, sash, sword and all.

Lucy's stories are eccentric and oddly ornery. But they are fascinatingly graphic about Gen. Sherman's fiery push to Atlanta, and they might illuminate aspects of black/white relationships in the South during the first few decades of the 20th century.

Admittedly, Lucy - at least in the narrative hands of playwright Tahse and novelist Gurganus - is one of those born storytellers.

But I think I would have preferred her to have been born something else, for I count myself a Civil War buff and frankly I didn't find Lucy, Cap and their stories all that interesting.

The single set by Allen Moyer looked modest to the point of cheap. Moreover, despite the sterling efforts of an elegantly passionate Burstyn and the caring direction of Don Scardino, this strange, spunky old lady never really came to life.

Perhaps one should just read the novel.

New York Post

New York Times: "'That Spunky Old Belle Isn't Just Whistlin' 'Dixie' "

Lucy Marsden, the narrator of Allan Gurganus's popular 1989 novel, ''Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,'' is 99 years old. The date is 1985, and Lucy is in the Lane's End rest home, spilling out her life story, mostly about her marriage to the final Confederate survivor of the Civil War, whom she married when he was 51 and she 15. With her husband's memories seemingly absorbed as her own, her life seems to span well over a century in rural North Carolina, from the days of slaves and slaveholders to the days of T-shirts that read, ''Disco Ain't Dead Yet.''

Possessed of a spectacular memory and a Homeric flair for epic storytelling, Lucy is a larger-than-life creation, even as she withers to nothing and rests bedbound on the lip of death.

An important factor in the forcefulness of the novel is Lucy's proximity to the end, her surly, stubborn crust in facing down the abyss. She chides the young interviewer who sits at her bedside: ''Honey, you don't want the truth. You're just hunting some sharp old gingham gal that'll fit onto a Sunday Supplement Ladies' Page.'' That's a powerful rebuke coming from someone who describes herself as ''a creaky leather hinge weighing under 89.''

But neither physically nor temperamentally is this the Lucy represented by Ellen Burstyn in Martin Tahse's stage adaptation of Mr. Gurganus's novel, a one-woman show that opened on Broadway last night at the Longacre Theater.

Bewigged and costumed like a Southern granny, Ms. Burstyn doesn't look anywhere close to 99; in fact she doesn't even look close to 70, which is her actual age. Far from lying supine and swathed in bedclothes, she can hardly keep still. Granted, a character lying still and speaking for two hours from under the covers might not strike many people -- with the exception of Samuel Beckett perhaps -- as riveting theater. But this Lucy is an athlete, gesturing, affecting the gaits and postures and facial expressions, not to mention the vocal tones, of the characters who are leaping out of her memory. Every so often Ms. Burstyn plops down in a wheelchair for a well-deserved breather.

This is purposeful of course, an adjustment made by the show's creators to transfer the story from the page to the stage. And the director, Don Scardino, has unpretentiously gone out of his way to amplify the effects you don't get from a book. Sounds -- butter sputtering in a pan, crickets in the night, gunshots -- accompany Lucy's recollections. Projections, mostly sepia photos, on the rear wall of the large, well-lighted cinder-block room with a distinctly institutional aura that Allen Moyer has designed to represent Lane's End, also ease the burden on the audience's imagination.

But one effect, perhaps unwitting, is that this treatment of the material has seriously altered the character of Lucy. Rather than speaking to an interviewer with a tape recorder (initially with reluctance but finally with the unstoppable certainty of a runaway locomotive), she is now a guest speaker of sorts. She's addressing a group of listeners at a charity benefit for the rest home.

This affords the savvy Ms. Burstyn an opportunity to engage the theater audience directly, making sure, for example, that people all over the house shout out the name of ''that big Civil War movie come out in '39'' when Lucy can't recall the title. But as this tiny moment in the opening minutes of the show reveals, this Lucy is not a woman on death's door revealing her life's secrets to a single listener in a desperate attempt to keep her memories alive. She doesn't have the flint of the Lucy in the novel, the casual, pick-tobacco-off-your-lip self-esteem or the used-razor-blade temperament of a survivor.

Rather, she's a performer, someone who is affecting a charming and solicitous persona, a wise and wizened old aunt who is working to seduce and entertain an audience. As a result this isn't a role that Ms. Burstyn disappears inside, and she doesn't have to. She just has to put it on like a costume. She's less a character than a narrator, and ''Oldest Confederate Widow'' is more a talking book than a play.

This isn't to say that Ms. Burstyn's performance doesn't have its appeal. She accommodates herself adroitly to the quality of Mr. Tahse's script, which, as a friend observed to me at intermission, befits a first-time playwright who is a seasoned writer of television movies. It feels very much like a voice-over narration that might easily and at any time dissolve into a flashback.

After a throat-clearing start, what Mr. Tahse has gleaned from Mr. Gurganus's mammoth book is a series of narrative episodes operatically flavored with consequential event and grandiose emotion.

Some, like the shooting of Captain Marsden's best friend, Ned, when both were teenagers in the Confederate Army, are recounted by Lucy from the stories told to her by her husband, and acted out by Ms. Burstyn as though she were channeling him. Some, like the story of the hunting accident that blinded her eldest son, also named Ned, are told with a powerful summoning of Lucy's past feeling, in this case devastating helplessness, rage and grief.

The tales of racial inequity generally involve Castalia, a former slave who once belonged to Captain Marsden's father. She was a lover to several Marsdens and is Captain Marsden's cook and housekeeper when he marries Lucy and introduces them.

These and a handful of other tales are terrific yarns, and it is generally a pleasure to have them delivered by a pro like Ms. Burstyn, especially after intermission, when she really gets her jaws and joints oiled and plunges headlong into the mimickry of characters and recitation of the rollicking regional patois that Mr. Gurganus or Mr. Tahse has given them. It's not a subtle performance, but then, to everybody's credit, no one has tried to make of this show anything more than the unsubtle, melodramatic telling of a melodramatic tale.

New York Times

Newsday: "Big Work in a Biddy Play"

We can all agree that Ellen Burstyn is a fine, fearless actress. In 1975, she became the first woman to win both a Tony Award and an Academy Award in the same year, and in her adventurous body of work she has been unafraid to go to dark, risky extremes, from the incredulous terror of the mother she played in "The Exorcist" in 1973 to the ugly craving of the diet-pill addict she portrayed in Darren Aronofsky's 2000 film "Requiem for a Dream."

Burstyn needs precisely none of that fearlessness for  her role in "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All," the harmless, sentimental one-woman show that opened last night at the Longacre. There's plenty of impeccable acting technique on display, but it often seems that not all of Burstyn's formidable emotional  resources are fully engaged.

That's probably because there isn't all that much in  the material that would completely engage her, or, for that matter, us. Adapted by Martin Tahse from the  1989 novel by Allan Gurganus, "Oldest Living  Confederate Widow" finds the 99-year-old Lucy  Marsden addressing us from the stage of a charity  benefit at the retirement home where she lives. She relates an array of stories drawn from her own experiences and from the lives of the people she  knew, including the Civil War veteran whom Lucy  married when he was 50 years old and she was just 15.

Burstyn's Lucy is a charming senior citizen with an upfront demeanor and a kind smile, as well as an energetic self-sufficiency that keeps the show's pace from flagging.

The actress evokes the many characters of Lucy's narratives with a carefully modulated arsenal of voices and spare, effective gestures. (The posture she adopts to indicate Lucy's husband during his teenage years, for instance, is  youthfully awkward and gently surprising.)

But a good number of Lucy's stories aren't about Lucy at all - many of them recount secondhand war stories from her husband's life-and that distance between the character and the tales she tells renders her monologue less involving than it might be. While we do hear of some episodes from her married life, we're never quite sure what sort of human connection Lucy and her husband share, so we're unprepared to feel much about the dramatic confrontation to which the evening builds.

It all aims to be told with a brand of down-home wit that the script never quite attains, and the wisdom offered by the show echoes lessons most of us have probably learned already, such as the fact that war is hell, and slavery, it turns out, was morally questionable.

Burstyn looks like an authentic old biddy, thanks to a dowdy dress from costume designer Jane Greenwood and a curly white wig by Paul Huntley, but she seems a little too spry for a 99-year-old as she putters around the convincingly institutional set (by Allen Moyer). Her sporadic use of a wheelchair feels less like a necessity for a tired old woman than it does a result of director Don Scardino looking to spice up his staging with some variety.

Leaning too heavily on the play's inspirational notes of enduring dignity, Scardino and his design team seem aware that the script alone may not hold our attention. So projection designer Wendall K. Harrington peppers the stage with images that are usually too literal to contribute much texture, while lighting designer Kenneth Posner does some effective mood-conjuring work and sound designer Peter Fitzgerald provides a complicated and precise soundtrack for Lucy's stories.

But it seems a shame that "Oldest Living Confederate Widow" is unremarkable enough to require that kind of multimedia enhancement to keep us interested. Burstyn doesn't need those bells and whistles, and we wish her material didn't, either.


USA Today: "Oldest Living Confederate Widow is a deadly dull affair"

In the classic film comedy Airplane!, a socially challenged former pilot played by Robert Hays sits down during a long flight and proceeds to recount events from his life in such painfully boring detail that his fellow passengers literally become suicidal.

I was reminded of this segment, though to less amusing effect, while catching a preview of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All , which opened Monday at Broadway's Longacre Theatre.

Based on Allan Gurganus' best-selling 1989 novel of the same name, Martin Tahse's one-woman play offers the recollections of Lucy Marsden, a 99-year-old widow who at 15 married a Civil War veteran more than three times her age. The action, or lack of it, is set, ominously, in a nursing home called Lanes' End, where "a good-looking fellow the color of cinnamon toast" tends to Lucy and the other old folks.

Predictably, race plays a factor in Lucy's saga. A sassy former slave was more of a soul mate, we learn, than Lucy's cantankerous, gun-loving coot of a husband, by whom she had nine children. In fact, regardless of whether you've read Gurganus' book, you'll be able to guess within five minutes that this will be the tale of a feisty Southern gal whose genuine devotion to family did not preclude a fierce independent streak.

The stories we are told hold few surprises, from Lucy's honeymoon horrors to the events leading to her spouse's demise. Plantations burn, children die prematurely and through it all, our heroine shows the tenacity we have all seen and read about many times before, in both historical and fictional accounts. There's even a Gone With the Wind reference to underscore the familiarity of the material. The tales seem to go on endlessly, though the play actually runs just over two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

What is surprising, and disappointing, is that the very accomplished actress who plays Lucy should fail to bring out her salty side more forcefully. Perhaps stage and screen veteran Ellen Burstyn and director Don Scardino were overly concerned with conveying the character's advanced age, but Burstyn's performance seldom rises to a pitch that could make her accounts more vibrant.

"Not to brag, folks, but stories only happen to the people who can tell them," her Lucy says. But it's difficult to see what could distinguish this frail, soft-spoken woman from any of the other seasoned citizens in residence at Lanes' End.

At one point during the performance, the person seated behind me gave a soft moan and slumped forward heavily. Remembering Airplane!, I turned around, worried for a moment. Luckily, she had only fallen asleep.

USA Today

Variety: "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All"

Everybody knows the title. Either you gave it for Christmas or you got it for Christmas. You read the reviews and always meant to pick it up. Your book club did it, or you took it to the Bahamas. But how many actually finished Allen Gurganus' 1984 novel, narrated by a very loquacious Southern lady of a fantastically advanced age? Hands, please. I thought so. Like other virtuosic literary achievements of recent vintage (Know anybody who got through "Infinite Jest"?), the book is one of those bestsellers that everybody bought but nobody had the time -- or the stamina -- to finish. So there may well be a mass audience of guilty or curious non-readers for the new stage adaptation by Martin Tahse, featuring Ellen Burstyn in the title role. More's the pity, then, that it turns out to be such a ponderous evening in the theater.

To suggest that not many of the novel's purchasers actually read to the last page isn't to denigrate Gurganus' achievement. The novel is indeed a splendid literary feat, and its narrator, 99-year-old Lucy Marsden, is an unforgettable character. Her distinctive voice is a mixture of down-home Southern folksiness and rich literary art that manages to blend the two so seamlessly you forget where one ends and the other begins.

Recounting the story of her tumultuous life, and that of her Confederate soldier husband, to a young reporter by her side at the Lanes' End charity home, Lucy speaks in a style that is variously refined and bawdy, blunt and highly ornate. At all times, she boasts a hilarious gift for oddball imagery. But the writing is so densely packed and dazzlingly inventive that it can be exhausting. Spend two hours with it, and you might feel a bit queasy, like you've eaten a whole fruitcake in one sitting.

Tahse must have gone through several good knives in whittling this baby down to a manageable size -- the novel runs past 700 pages. Unfortunately much of what's been shed is what gives the character of Lucy her claim to literary uniqueness. Obviously, Tahse couldn't preserve the extravagant excess that gives Lucy's voice its distinction -- if he did, we'd be here all night. But without that flavoring, Lucy's tales of the antebellum South and the chaos of the Civil War are really not all that special.

And in hacking away the plush piles of verbiage, stripping off the jumble of digressions, diversion and shaggy-dog stories that dangle from the narrative, the playwright distorts the sound of Lucy's voice. She dwells at disproportionate length here on such lachrymose subjects as the death of a baby and another child's tragic accident, coming across far more sentimentally than she does in the novel.

One of Lucy's big set pieces, about her coddled Southern belle mother-in-law's wartime experience, contains an anti-racist aside that was just a blip in the novel. Onstage, it becomes a thundering pronouncement -- a platitude written in neon. (Director Don Scardino ratchets up the righteousness, and Kenneth Posner dims the lights for dramatic effect.)

The necessary distillation doesn't just affect Lucy's character, either, but the overall shape of the narrative. The demise of Capt. Marsden, Lucy's damaged-soul husband, seems too bizarre and grotesque here without the ample context of the novel to prepare us for it. It ends the play on a sour note.

Even reduced as she is to a more cozy and stereotypical creature, Lucy is still a juicy role. With her big bag of tall tales, her cranky-cute voice and her indomitable, battle-scarred spirit, she presents the kind of challenge actresses can't resist. If only they could!

Burstyn certainly should have known her talents are not comfortably suited to this kind of showboaty acting vehicle. Her best screen performances -- "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" obviously comes to mind -- have been marked by a natural humanity and warmth, and little artifice. Lucy is all artifice -- she's close to caricature, really; that's what makes her such a compelling character. And even if Lucy is more bland onstage than on the page, Burstyn still can't really pull off the kind of fancy-pants bravura performance the role calls for, with a variety of divergent, colorful voices. (Frankly, this Midwesterner doesn't even consistently sustain Lucy's Southern accent.)

It's dispiriting, at times even embarrassing, to witness this fine actress's energetic struggle to embody the diverse characters in the narrative, from Lucy's loving but disturbed husband, forever mourning the boyhood pal he lost in the war, to a black servant with an acid tongue and a big, burning heart. She tries like the dickens, but this simply isn't Burstyn's territory. She sounds like a jazz singer trying to do opera, or maybe an opera singer trying to do jazz. Either way, it doesn't sound right.


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