BY CARY GINELL
“Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray,” which plays at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura through September 29, is a one-man play featuring a bravura performance by Tom Dugan, who also researched and wrote the compelling script. Originally produced in 2003, “Shades of Gray” has been restaged to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.
One-man shows are always difficult from the writer’s perspective because they need to establish who the performer is addressing; it is not always effective to merely have the performer giving a “speech.” In this case, Dugan addresses the audience directly as “posterity,” as we sit in judgment of Lee as he dramatizes key events in his life as general of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
The play takes place on April 9, 1865, as Lee awaits the arrival of his counterpart, General Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House, where he will surrender his army, effectively ending the American Civil War. During the course of the show, we flash back to key periods during the war, as Lee dramatizes events such as the battles of Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and Cold Harbor. (The action periodically returns to April 9, indicated by the ticking of a mantel clock on the fireplace.)
“History books may say hard things of me, but books are printed in black and white, while life is lived in shades of gray,” Lee says at the culmination of the play, in reference to “posterity” judging him because he dared participate and helped lead the most catastrophic revolution in the history of the United States. There are many “shades of gray” of the Civil War – assumptions that had no basis in fact, such as Abraham Lincoln’s main reason for fighting the Civil War, which was not to end slavery, but to preserve the Union, decimated in 1861 when eleven Southern states seceded. Similarly, Robert E. Lee did not join the South to preserve slavery, for he was ardently against it, but to defend his home state of Virginia against Northern aggression. In truth, Lee abhorred slavery, calling it a “moral and political evil.” During the play, Lee presents issues concerning slavery, which also reveal its own “shades of gray,” as he wonders what is to become of the country’s four million slaves once they are freed. Can they be re-employed as free men? No one thought beyond the “for” and “against” arguments about slavery, to understand the consequences of what would happen if slaves were immediately freed.
Lee was a master military tactician, and as Dugan cogently displays in his script, based his decisions on understanding the personalities and tendencies of his opposing generals. Recognizing the vanity of Northern general George McClellan, Lee is able to defeat him in the Civil War’s early battles. He demonstrates strategies relating to some of the Civil War’s most deadly battles, blaming his defeat at Gettysburg on the inability to get experienced field commanders as well as the unreliability of General Jeb Stuart, who fails to report reconnaissance of the enemy’s strength and location until it is too late.
The Battle of Gettysburg is the most dramatically effective scene in the play. Sound effects of cannon and rifle fire are accompanied by blinding flashes of light and rebel yells, as smoke envelopes the set. At other times, Lee holds one-way conversations with President Jefferson Davis, his generals, and even his son, Robert E. Lee, Jr., who has enlisted in the army himself. These scenes are presented effectively and naturally, even though Lee is basically addressing empty chairs during his conversations.
Lee’s key strategical tactic is to “take the initiative,” even when hopelessly outnumbered. He wins key battles by taking bold, unexpected measures, but met his match in the relentless Grant, who finally defeats him in the Battle of Richmond.
Dugan’s Lee comes across as human, an honorable, deeply religious man who was truly the most brilliant military mind of the Civil War on either side. Dugan plays him with grace, humor, and sympathy, and we come away with a greater understanding of the demons he fought in leading the South in its battle against the Union.
Dugan’s masterful portrayal is one of many he has created in a series of “one-person” plays he has written. For students of the Civil War, “Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray” is an enlightening, brilliantly written and performed study of one of the most fascinating personages in American history.
“Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray” plays through September 29 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar of Events.