The Long Rail North starring Xavier Rodney, Jordyn Morgan, Rich Wisneski, Anna Hogan and Michael Whitten. Director – Brock Harris Hill; Stage Manager – Liza Penney; Playwright – Michael Hagins; Technical Director – Melissa Farinelli; Costume Design – Janet Mervin
The Long Rail North is the story of Private Thomas Morgan, a Black Union soldier, escapes via train with a Southern White girl he rescued from a plantation fire of a nearby Civil War battle. He will protect her from both Union and Confederate forces pursuing them…at all costs.
Review by Chris Castellano
I had the pleasure to catch the opening performance of Michael Hagins’ show The Long Rail North. This show has been developed, produced, reworked, and presented many times anew in the last twenty years, and I’m happy to report that the modern version is an impactful and in-depth look into a complicated topic.
The Long Rail North picks one of the hardest topics in American History and dives straight in: Slavery and the Civil War. One of the things that struck me hardest as an audience member was the strange parallels to today’s society. There’s an old saying that goes “History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes,” and I could hear the echoes of the present within this work, even portraying something as extreme as Civil War era racism. It made me take a hard look at the attitudes in present day society as well.
The cast for this show was instrumental in delivering an experience which at times was funny, other times uncomfortable in its rawness, and even tense as drawn piano wire during the confrontations. Every actor should be commended for their performance in this piece. Xavier Rodney who played Private Thomas Morgan had an uncanny ability to turn on a dime and switch from a polite man trying to be civil, to an explosively angry man working through the complex issues of his life. Every time that shift happened, it was electrifying, and you could see every detail of his face showing each emotion.
Jordyn Morgan, playing Molly Barnes, had the uncomfortable responsibility of playing a character raised by a dyed in the wool racist who had slaves on a plantation. The character was 12 and called for blatant and frankly abusive racism. This kind of role requires a delicate balance between innocence and learning. Jordyn took this challenge, and ran with it, presenting us the image of a young girl parroting her father’s teachings, and eventually coming to her own conclusions by the end of the piece.
Sgt. Major Andrew Vickers, played by Rich Wisneski, is equal parts fascination at the performance and terror for the character. His performance in this piece left me rooted to my seat with its tension and subtlety. The undercurrent of violence and venom from this character, barely held in check with a veneer of southern genteel was palpable in every moment the role was on screen. The best compliment I can pay to the actor is that they were genuinely terrifying to see on stage.
Anna Hogan who played Coal Car Cassie provided a much-needed sense of balance between the extremes of racism shown from both sides of the conflict. Her performance was wonderfully optimistic, and at times both funny and heartwrenching. She provides a look into something not often mentioned about the Civil War: nearly everyone was racist towards African-Americans at the time, and there were people in the southern states who did not support the Confederacy or slavery. Anna presented us with a woman who was equal parts optimistic and pragmatic, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
According to the program, David Berman is primarily a filmmaker, but I found that hard to believe from the performance he gave. One of my favorite things about the character of Colonel Peter Forrest is that he shows that the attitudes of slavery didn’t end at the Mason-Dixon line. The Union was just as virulently racist towards African-Americans as the south in some ways. David’s performance was sinister in a different way than Rich’s, but they still both felt like villains in their own way.
This show incorporated a significant number of fights, choreographed by Michael Hagins himself. These fights were realistic and brutal. I felt like the characters were genuinely in danger, even when I knew objectively that the choreography was safe. The fight phrases were well-timed and allowed for a natural exploration of the lines during them.
One of the great strengths of this show was that the direction by Brock H. Hill allowed for a significant amount of space to let the scene evolve organically. There was at least one time where I caught myself wondering what line would come next, but it works so well in establishing that these characters were real people who didn’t suddenly trust each other. I commend Brock taking the scenes in a slightly risky way, letting the lines have space to fill the dialogue out organically.
There were maybe one or two writing choices that I felt may have pulled away, but they were all things that were not wrong, so much as a question of choice. The romance subplot, some of the lines delivered by Forrest. Regardless of whatever quibbles I had with the writing, and the work overall what was presented to me was a knockout performance and a fascinating story. Michael Hagins challenges the narrative a lot of us have about the Civil War; presenting no one as the “good guys” other than individuals.
I could go on for pages about what I loved about this show. As always, my recommendation is based on if I think someone who enjoys theater would enjoy this show. In this case, absolutely, yes. I feel everyone should see this show if they get a chance. You can catch The Long Rail North at the FringeNYC FringeHUB Theater at 9:30 Monday, October 15th, 7pm Saturday, October 20th, 4:45 PM Tuesday, October 23rd at 4:45 PM or Saturday, October 27th at 12:15pm.