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Review: ‘Battle Hymn’ at the Ford

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Our nation has made great strides during the last 150 years -- in technology, infrastructure and even fashion. When it comes to moral progress -- maybe not so much.

Jim Leonard’s new historical fantasy, ‘Battle Hymn,’ at [Inside] the Ford, may not be the first to reach that unsentimental conclusion, but the path it takes getting there is refreshingly original, smart and engaging. After all, it’s not every day you see a pregnant teenager travel from Civil War-era Kentucky to present-day San Francisco, refusing to give birth along the way.

The girl in question, Martha (Suzy Jane Hunt), has a deceptively simple reason for hanging on to her fetus -- she wants to bring her child into a better world than the one she was born into. Easier said than done after an impulsive tryst on the eve of her lifelong heartthrob Henry’s (Bill Heck) departure for the battlefield leaves Martha ‘about to bear fruit in a real big way.’ Banished from home by her irate preacher father (William Salyers), waylaid on a train by a pair of thieves (Robert Manning Jr. and John Short) and conscripted into the Union army, Martha ultimately reunites with Henry in a deserter prison cell, only to find that he’s thrown her over for another man (Manning). They manage to escape, but Martha is unwilling to continue ‘like two Josephs and a Mary,’ so she strikes out on her own in search of a better world.

Her utopian quest leads to some strange places, where she keeps running into variations of the same characters. Some stops are hilarious (a pastoral romp with talking cows), some harrowing (a stint in a mental hospital) before ending up in iconic San Francisco during the Summer of Love, where she belts out a Janis Joplin-esque blues number against a psychedelic backdrop.

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Alas, even this countercultural ideal succumbs to greed and pettiness -- as does Henry, whose hilarious hippy-turned-BlackBerry-toting-stockbroker is only the latest of his wacky incarnations.

This absurdist road trip in space and time is not without occasional lapses into preciousness. But the playwright’s offbeat humor consistently comes to the rescue, a perfect match for Circle X Theatre Company’s signature whimsical staging and inventive visual flair. Under John Langs’ lively direction, the four versatile males bring clarity and impeccable comic timing to their diverse multiple roles, while Hunt’s quirky, sympathetic Martha anchors the piece in a haunting realization: A better world will always be out of reach until we look for it in ourselves.

-- Philip Brandes

‘Battle Hymn,’ [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 21. $20; (323) 461-3673. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Caption: Suzy Jane Hunt in ‘Battle Hymn’ at [Inside] the Ford. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times


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