Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
At: Goodman Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800; GoodmanTheatre.org; $10-$40.Runs through: June 24
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has created worlds within worlds in the sweeping Father Comes Home From the Wars ( Parts 1, 2 & 3 ). Set during the Civil War but harkening back to the millennia-old dramas penned at the dawn of the art form, Father Comes Home is at once a historical piece, uncompromisingly contemporary and as ancient as the epic poems of Homer. In the three-hour and 15-intermisison ( two intermission ) epic, Parks weaves storytelling harsh as a wound and as beautiful as blood and bone. In director Niegel Smith's intricate work, the production pulses like a heartbeat.
At the heart of this multi-faceted odyssey is Hero ( Kamal Angelo Bolden ), a slave owned by an unnamed Colonel ( William Dick ) so cruel and thick-skulled he could've just stepped out of a Faulkner novel. Broken into roughly 55 minute segments, Homer's journey unfolds as triptych of consecutive events. Part I ( Measure of a Man ) shows Hero trying to decide whether to go to war for the South, as the Colonel's servant. The Colonel promised freedom in exchange, provided they both make it out alive.
Part 2 ( A Battle in the Wilderness ) unfolds in a camp where the Colonel has a captured and caged union officer named Smith ( Demetrios Troy ). By firelight, the three create a microcosm of race relations in the wider world. In Part 3, ( The Union of My Confederate States ), Hero has returned to the plantation and his beloved Penny ( Aime Donna Kelly ), copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his pocket.
The parallels between Park's Hero and Homer's Ulysses run deep and are sometimes positively cheeky in their obviousness ( there's a cross-eyed dog named Odd See brought to adorably anthropomorphic life by BrittanyLove Smith ) at other times as subtle as a glimmer. There is also a marvelous Chorus ( Led by Jacqueline Williams and featuring Sydney Charles, Ronald L. Conner and Michael Aaron Pogue. ) that sets the show in motion and provides unflinching insights into Hero's character.
Sprawling but intensely intimate, Hero's store unfolds with vivid, often shocking plot twists that reveal the all-but unbearable savagery of slavery. Hero is forced to make choices of impossible cruelty. These come into sharp relief the twined story of Homer ( a righteously seething Jaime Lincoln Smith ), a former runaway who paid a literal pound of flesh for his brief escape. Hero's story makes it heartbreakingly clear that being a heroor even a decent personis a luxury if you're in bondage. His first act exile has the feel of an ancient religious ritual. It's wordless, eerie percussive cadence will haunt you.
Bolden is a magnetic force, capturing the cataclysmic contradictions warring within a man forced to commit unforgivable sins in order to simply survive. In the final third of Father Comes Home, he reveals flaws that have defined feckless, disrespectful men for millennia. As his beloved Penny, Kelly nails the devotion and the anguish of a woman forced to endure the bitterest of betrayals.
Playing out on scenic designer Courtney O'Neill's flexible set, the action moves with supple ease from plantation to war camp and back.
Smith's supporting cast is well worthy of Parks' near-hypnotically compelling dialogue. Troy is wondrous as Smith, the Colonel's union prisoner. He has a huge reveal in his single, mesmerizing scene and it is somehow as stunning as a thunderclap and ( the more you ponder it ) not at all surprising.
Linda Cho's costumesfrom the sweat-stained American flag rags borne by a crew of vaudeville-sequel runways to the ridiculously outsized feather plume in the Colonel's hatare both historically accurate and profoundly symbolic. Lighting designer Keith Parham's evocative palette completes the stage pictures with a beauty that complement the story without distracting from it. And as the Oldest Old Man on the plantation, Ernest Perry Jr. speaks in profundities without coming anywhere near the hoary stereotype of the wise old man.
At over three hours, Father Comes Home feels like 30 minutes. Every second is vital.