Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession

Manbites Dog Theater
Through May 1

I’m happyand a bit relievedto report that the third stage incarnation of Allan Gurganus’ novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is the most successful. I caught the first version, an implausibly modernized take starring Ellen Burstyn, during its previews on Broadway in 2003 before it closed on opening night. The second, co-produced by Theater of the American South and Burning Coal Theatre in 2007, scored dramatic points with Quinn Hawkesworth in the lead but took the tale in a direction ultimately too dark to suit the author.

In this iteration, which keeps the title of the 2007 work, Oldest Living Confederate Widow: Her Confession, co-adaptor and actor Jane Holding brings to the title role of Lucille Marsden an optimal mix of vinegar and honey as the “last living veteran of the last living veteran of the Civil War.” Though she’s 99 years old, Holding’s Lucy remains one shrewd customer, a strong woman who vividly rememberswith precious little in the way of sentimentalitythe good and the bad of family life, and the eventual death, of her husband, “Captain” Marsden.

For all of that, this Lucy has lived a century and kept her sense of humor. Holding’s deadpan delivery of Gurganus’ material keeps proving the truth of an old saw the author repurposed for his 1989 novel: “She who laughs, lasts.”

But the abundant strengths of this script, and Holding’s interpretation with director Katja Hill, lead us to conclude it truly didn’t need an offstage percussionistor at least one providing what sounded like gratuitous rimshots in the style of stand-up comedyduring Friday night’s opening performance. Also to be questioned is what I’d call the firefly motif by which Holding transitions from room to room in Derrick Ivey’s atmospheric set: As the naked bulbs turn on and off by themselves in different places in the house, Lucy follows the light, increasingly addressing her narratives to the illumination itself, as if it were the Captain’s ghost. This too-apparent transitional device adds drama to one scene only, toward the end.

There are other minor miscalculations, including the unnecessary, brief appearance of a man in soldier’s garb at a window and Ms. Holding’s clearly fake wig and makeup, which don’t convince us of her character’s age. But these annoyances don’t compromise the rock-solid work here at the center of an enjoyable and dramatic one-woman show.