‘Killer Angels’ casts North, South in equal light

“The Killer Angels,” based on the novel by Michael Shaara, is a moving play that attempts to put a human face on those who led thousands to their death at the battle of Gettysburg. The Feb. 18 performance at Anchorage Community Theatre’s studio was a superb night of drama, and was alternately exciting and tender.

The first act starts a bit bland, as the various commanders discuss tactics and slowly build to the bloody turning point of the Civil War. The play picks up energy and poignancy as the battle begins. The second act, highlighted by the stirring bayonet charge at Little Round Top, moves swiftly with fluctuating intensity and introspection, alternating between battles and personal reflections from the commanding officers. Folksy musical interludes from Dennis Cleary provide for smooth segues between the scenes.

The ensemble cast did an admirable job, for the most part. At first I thought General Lee (Ron Holmstrom) was played far too sedate, but I soon realized Holmstrom wasn’t portraying him as sedate, but as a tortured man, torn between his duty to his country and his love of his home, Virginia. At odds with Lee is General Longstreet (Wayne Mitchell) Lee’s second in command. Mitchell lent great presence of mind to Longstreet as he fervently pleaded with Lee to reconsider his strategy. We of course know Lee will refuse and the Confederates will be annihilated. What is remarkable about Mitchell’s performance is that Longstreet also knows it. The sad vision of the future makes Mitchell’s Longstreet incredibly empathetic. Rounding out the commanding officers for the South are the inept Generals Ewell (Frank Delaney) and Pickett (also Delaney), one too hesitant in battle, the other too eager.

The main characters on the Union side include the occasionally somber, occasionally fiery Corneal Chamberlain (Shane Mitchell) and his dopey, endearing brother, Tom (Carl Bright). Swapping dialogue about life, death and mom, Mitchell’s powerful persona and Bright’s innocence provided for some great passionate moments.

The entire cast moved very well on stage, a credit to director Mike Faust. Complex marching scenes and battles are not easy to stage, but the small theater felt much bigger with Faust’s skillful use of lighting, sound and blocking.

The simple set was a perfect analogy for the themes explored in the play: one side is blue, the other gray, but in the middle the two colors blur together. Neither side is portrayed as the stereotypical good or bad guys; but rather the soldiers of both armies think they are fighting for freedom.

Not everything was excellent, however. The action dragged in the beginning, partially because of some supporting cast members, none of which were especially awful, but nonetheless did not sell me on their characters. Perhaps this could be attributed to opening night jitters, because eventually everyone was right on.

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“The Killer Angels” is heavy and may jerk a tear or two. For people who want a dose of history with their drama, I highly recommend seeing this show.