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A CurtainUp Review

Private Battles

When Mrs Cassie Bridges Logan (Lucy Martin) is appointed as the chief administrator of an Illinois State Hospital, the Civil War is past history. Her appointment is historic on several counts. The stately widow is a transplanted Southerner and the first woman ever in this powerful position. But while the war is over, its wounds still fester as this play covering the four months following Mrs. Logan's appointment will make amply clear.

Soon after an ex-Civil War soldier, Private Albert Cashier (Mikel Sarah Lambert), is unceremoniously dumped onto a hospital cot by Thomas Fitzpatrick (Edward Tully), a callow attendant, the secret he's guarded for more than forty years is revealed. The private battles that ensue as intense and painful as the bloodier ones fought forty years earlier.

Since Private Cashier's secret is let out of the bag -- or, to be more exact, the straightjacket in which he is often confined -- I'm not spoiling the suspense by telling you that Albert is a man in name and by occupation only. The exposure of his-her sexual identity fires Mrs. Logan's determination to force the crusty old soldier to proclaim his/her womanhood by donning a gown. Being an obviously reform-minded administrator she uses persuasion rather than force. Her voice is soft, but her will is ironclad.

A doctor about the widowed Mrs. Logan's age (Martin LaPlatney) tries to convince her not to shatter the curmudgeonly old soldier's dignity and allow the pretense that has worked for so long to continue. The doctor is himself no stranger to camouflage, since working in a mental institution is his cover for indulging his own morphine habit. However, he is no more successful in breaking down his boss' determination than he is in convincing her to allow him to ride with her in her Oldsmobile so they can enjoy each other's company when not on duty at the hospital. This lady is as tough as the old soldier who has so offended her sense of propriety and it becomes gradually evident that there's more than meets the eye to her need to get Cashier into a dress.

Except for the sound of occasional moans from unseen other inmates, only three other people participate in the battle being waged by Mrs. Logan for what she claims to be in the old soldier's best interest: The maniacally mischievous Thomas who could as easily be an inmate as an attendant . . . a God fearing but naive young black nurse who yearns to be an artist (Daphne Gaines) . . .and Robert Horan (Ed Steele), a soldier who served with Private Cashier and is brought to the hospital by Mrs. Logan to confront his former comrade.

The psychological cat and mouse game between the hospital administrator and the hapless man-woman inmate leads to a dénouement during which Mrs. Logan's lingering rage about her own Civil War experience in Vicksburg explodes into a violent act of cruelty. These "private battles" are the product of Jan Buttram's fertile brain. However, the dramatic events are inspired by the true story of a nineteen-year-old Irish immigrant. Albert D. J. Cashier, who enlisted in the Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry as a "slip of a girl"" from Ireland and served throughout the war, participating in approximately forty battles and skirmishes. Unlike most of the other women who took up arms disguised as men, Cashier spent his entire life as a man. (See end of this review for details about other women in the Civil War) His/her case is also one of the best documented since the discovery of his true sex while he lived in the Quincy (IL) Soldiers' Home set off a storm of sensational newspaper stories. According to the Illinois historical records, neither Cashier's former comrades-in-arms or the commandant of the Soldiers' Home ever suspected that he was a she. The real Cashier, also died in an insane asylum but not until 1914.

Stephen Hollis's solid directions, the fine ensemble acting, and standout performance of Mikel Sarah Lambert, give life to Buttram's well-written fictionalized slice of history. James Wolk's clever two-level set expands and gives dimension to the tiny Judith Anderson stage.

Despite these strong assets the play leaves a lingering doubt about its fictional twists and turns. The real drama of Cashier and other women who braved the dangers of the battlefield bearing the extra burden of their sexual disguises is so gripping that they overshadow any fictional embellishments.

By Jan Buttram
Directed by Stephen Hollis
With Lucy Martin,, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Martin LaPlatney, Daphne Gaines, Ed Tulley
Ed Steele
Set design: James Wolk
Costume design: Gweneth West
Lighting design: Jeff Croiter & Andris Kasparovics BR> Sound design: David B. Smith
9/18/98-10/25/98;opening 9/2798
Reviewed 10/02/98 by Elyse Sommer

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