Sam Cordes and Bri Woods in “Mary’s Wedding” (Don Ipock)
One of the benefits of outdoor theater: natural sound effects. “Mary’s Wedding,” the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s season opener (and artistic director Stuart Carden’s directorial debut), would be romantic in any setting. On the terraced south lawn of the National World War I Museum, the late-summer heartbeat of cicadas transforms it into the theatrical equivalent of a melted popsicle.
The script, a two-hander by Stephen Massicotte, has familiar twists and turns but an innovative structure. On the night before her wedding in 1920, Mary (Bri Woods) relives the night she met Charlie (Sam Cordes) in a dilapidated barn while waiting out a rainstorm. “Tonight is just a dream,” Charlie tells the audience. “I ask you to remember that.”
The “dream” is really a series of vignettes that follow the jumbled threads of memory, bouncing between the couple’s early courtship to their correspondence while Charlie stalks the trenches of the Great War.
Woods delivers a commanding performance as Mary, a self-assured English girl who pursues Charlie despite his status as a “dirty farmboy colonist.” Although her movement work can seem less confident—some forward-leaning, some listless shifting—Woods is a strong vocal presence who pivots with ease from playing Mary to portraying Charlie’s paternal sergeant, a man named Gordon Muriel Flowerdew (her dialect is also consistent throughout; Jason Chanos is credited as coach).
That double-casting is intentional: Flowerdew tells Charlie he’ll see Mary “in everyone,” a line that insists on itself when delivered by Woods in an empire-waist dress. But Mary and Flowerdew are aligned in subtler ways as well: throughout the play, the sergeant prods Charlie not to be reckless with his life and to send reassuring letters to his sweetheart.
Cordes is earnest and expressive as Charlie, a tender-hearted idealist who dreams of recreating Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” while serving in the cavalry (the second love story in this play is between Charlie and his horses). Cordes manages to show the psychic toll of the war without ever losing sight of Charlie’s higher ideals and drive.
Director Stuart Carden leans into the play’s dreamlike qualities: actors frequently mime actions or suggest them with simple props. A stack of hay bales is transformed into a horse for a romantic ride through the country; scene changes are suggested largely through the swelling or dimming of lantern light.
That treatment works in the care of a strong production team, anchored by sound designer Megumi Katayama. Sound effects do most of the scene-setting in the play, and Katayama balances them perfectly for the outdoor venue. The effects throughout are hyper-realistic, from sheets of rain to the lazy beat of horse hooves to stomach-dropping rifle reports.
The spare set, designed by Ken Martin, frames the stage with poppies and jagged wooden slats, as deft at evoking a barn as a fire bay in a swampy trench (Selena Gonzalez-Lopez’s lights complete the transition, tilting between eerie color washes and warm, romantic practicals). That stripped-down set is partly a function of Massicotte’s script, which has almost as much narration as a radio play. Dramatic scenes (when we get them) are engaging and high-energy—but long sequences of passive exposition and letter-reading can make the 90-minute show drag.
A bigger liability is the show’s ending, which skews maudlin due to sluggish pacing and bald dialogue that lacks the lyricism present in much of the play. A late-play “reveal” is drawn out despite being apparent from the jump.
Still, “Mary’s Wedding” is worth seeing for its poetic, intricate braiding of the wide-eyed innocence of first love with the gut-roiling indignities of war. Bring your own chair or picnic blanket to the museum lawn and reintroduce yourself to the romance of live theater; listen to the keening of the last cicadas making way for something new.
“Mary’s Wedding,” a production of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, runs at the National WWI Museum and Memorial through September 19. For more information, call 816-235-2700 or visit kcrep.org