“Union” and “civil war” prove increasingly double-edged terms along “The Road to Appomattox,” Catherine Bush’s 2010 play making its West Coast premiere at Burbank’s Colony Theatre.
Two parallel stories set 150 years apart — the first an intimate, present-day snapshot of a foundering marriage, the other a historical docudrama about a tragic national conflict in its convulsive final days — unfold along the route of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreat and eventual surrender at Appomattox.
The 1865 story line traces the deteriorating fortunes of General Lee, sympathetically portrayed with genteel Southern dignity by Bjørn Johnson. His Lee is especially poignant when confronting a moral dilemma with his adjutant (Shaun Anthony) over continuing the secessionist war he never endorsed but feels honor-bound to wage with every ounce of his formidable strategic skill.
In the present, Beau and Jenny Weeks (Brian Ibsen, Jenny Flanery) try to salvage their own troubled union with a road trip retracing Lee’s retreat. Along the way, they enlist a rakish Civil War historian (Tyler Pierce) to help uncover the fate of Beau’s great-great-grandfather, who served under Lee.
The two timelines alternately play out at the same locations, superbly realized in a woodsy war-torn scenic backdrop by David Potts and Orlando de la Paz. Brian Shnipper’s handsome, well-paced staging could serve as a textbook model for efficient, unobtrusive scene changes.
The play’s reveal of the role Beau’s ancestor played in the Civil War comes as an ingenious surprise, one of the play’s high points. Unfortunately, the modern couple’s generic conflicts, which never dig deeper than pop psychology tropes, lack the detail and nuance of the Civil War arc.
Belabored metaphorical invocations of Humpty Dumpty and the physics law of entropy further ensure that there is virtually no subtext to consider in a message that boils down to respecting the past without getting stuck in it.
“The Road to Appomattox,” Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd Street, Burbank. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 15. $20-$49. (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15, or www.colonytheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours.