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Arena Stage premieres Civil War-related monologues with help from Justice Ginsburg

Sara Waisanen faces the rest of the cast of "Our War" at Arena Stage.
Sara Waisanen faces the rest of the cast of "Our War" at Arena Stage. (Teresa Wood)

Now that the bicentennial observances of the Battle of Baltimore and penning of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are over, it's worth getting back to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. There is certainly plenty left to learn about that wrenching chapter of our history and its ever-nagging legacy.

The National Civil War Project, a collaborative effort involving various cities, arts organizations and universities, has included the commissioning of several theater works in an effort to provide fresh perspectives on the conflict.

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One of the results is "Healing Wars" by Liz Lerman, who had the original inspiration for the National Civil War Project. Her affecting creation was premiered last season by Washington's Arena Stage, where another premiere, "Our War," took place over the weekend.

"Our War" is a collection of short monologues penned by 25 playwrights. Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith said she got the idea for this from the "My America" project at Baltimore's Center Stage that involved the reflections of 50 playwrights.

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On Friday night in the intimate Kogod Cradle space at Arena, 18 of the "Our War" pieces were performed (a slightly different group of 18 monologues is presented on alternate days). A dynamic, decidedly diverse cast of eight was joined by a guest artist better known for her role in a decidedly demarcated ensemble of nine.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the most prominent of 30-some D.C.-area celebs making cameo appearances in "Our War," made an endearing impression reading "That Boy" by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire.

This monologue is in the voice of a North Carolina woman worried about her problematic son, who impulsively enlisted and is away at war. Dropping the g's at the end of –ing words (to shade her normal Brooklyn accent), the justice brought out the timeless emotions and gentle humor of the script.

Ginsburg delivered "That Boy" from a lectern; the rest of the 90-minute, intermission-less show played out theatrically on a minimal set-with-projections (Robbie Hayes) given a good deal of atmosphere from Catherine Girardi's lighting.

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Not surprisingly, the range of images, insights, questions and twists covered by the monologues is wide, the quality variable. Some of the pieces are set in the Civil War, others in our time. Director Anita Maynard-Losh manages to string the disparate material together in fluid fashion. If the net result isn't entirely cohesive, it is, somehow, consistently engaging.

Among the characters conjured up is a 10-year-old girl, in John Strand's "The Truth, Revealed," who gives her proud Civil War report to classmates, explaining how Northern aggressors just couldn't wait for slavery to peter out on its own.

The lampoon is funny and stinging (if a little too easy), and it was vibrantly performed on Friday by Sara Waisanen. The actress also excelled as a nurse delivering a sort of stand-up routine addressing the wounded in Amy Freed's "Convalescent Ward, Harrison's Landing 1862."

Samuel D. Hunter's "The Homesteader" introduces the last descendant of a Civil War veteran who settled in Idaho and gets a shopping mall named after him. There's some bite in this wry item, and actor John Lescault uncorked it deftly.

Robert O'Hara's rather wicked "Antique" finds a woman visiting "Antiques Roadshow" hoping to raise some capital with a daguerreotype of an enslaved ancestor (Kelly Renee Armstrong did amusing work here).

A couple pieces look at reverberations of the Civil War affecting present-day immigrants, most movingly in Maria Agui Carter's "Fourteen Freight Trains," the story of young man's journey from Central America to fighting a war for our country in the Middle East.

Ricardo Frederick Evans gave an exceptional performance in Carter's work, then outdid himself in "The Grey Rooster" by Pulitzer-earning Lynn Nottage, who knows how to spin a good yarn.

This deliciously vivid, irony-tinged vignette offers the reminiscences of a former slave (he shares a special talent with Chicken George in Alex Haley's "Roots"), who developed a knack for survival while in the service of his whiskey-producing master and crueler mistress.

Tuyet Thi Pham and Lynette Rathnam complete the tightly knit cast in this unusual production, which underlines the myriad ways the Civil War still haunts and challenges us, 150 long years later.

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