Typical of a hardened, blustery military man, Major-General Daniel Edgar Sickles embodies gruff, irascible, indomitable. As played by Andrew Barnicle in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere production of Tim Burns Faded Glory, that’s exactly what we get for the better part of two hours: an irascible bedridden general. But Sickles – based on a true-life figure in and after the Civil War – also possesses a fiercely nostalgic, practically obsessive, side: He can’t let go of the memories of his past. They’re littered throughout his home, where he is patiently tended to by nurse-and-confidant Eleanor (Shana Wride, in one of her most endearing roles in recent memory).
Sickles is forced to confront the emotional complexities of his past with a vengeance during Faded Glory’s swift-moving two acts. His trying to regain the Medal of Honor that was bestowed upon him and then retracted is only part of his inner turmoil. There’s also the long-festered intrigue of his political/emotional relationship with Spain’s Queen Isabella, his subsequent arranged marriage to one of her ladies in waiting (Frances Anita Rivera, in both roles) and his personal realization of his own frailties, ones that extend beyond the loss of a leg at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Enlivening but also muddling the storytelling is the presence of the dipsomaniacal John Barrymore (Bruce Turk), who conspires to bring the general and his estranged wife Condesa together again. The result of that reunion is the play’s payoff dramatic moment.
Faded Glory can be unapologetic fun, mostly when the general is bantering back and forth with the indomitable but good-natured Ellie, who gives as good as she gets. The drunken oratory of scene-stealing Barrymore, too, is hard to resist given Turk’s affable interpretation. One almost longs for a Barrymore solo show, overflowing with booze-filled philosophy and weaving footsteps. But much of the noise of Faded Glory comes from the general, who interchangeably comes off as noble in his way or just plain cranky. Though the real-life Sickles’ biography problematic, his dramatization really doesn’t have to be, especially in a comedy played with the light touch that this one is.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat