John Guare's "Women and Water" is ambitious to a fault. Right there on the bare planks of Arena Stage, where it opened last night, it wants to show us nothing less than the fury of the Civil War, mutiny on the high seas, a steamboat trip up the Pamunkey River, carnage in a Southern prison, family treason on the island of Nantucket and last, although hardly least, the dawn of a new age.
Muskets explode. Bodies crumple. Throats are slit. Fists are flung. A wild boar runs amok in the night and a seaside grave is exhumed for its dank, dark secrets. A son shoots his mother. A sister eviscerates her brother. Spies connive. So do Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
And still it comes: seduction, bribery, disguise, fast flight, hot pursuit, stolen journals, even a minstrel show. There, riding the crest of so much tumult, her red hair streaming behind her like a banner, is an indomitable heroine by the name of Lydie Breeze. Lydie Typhoon would be more like it.
Midway through this huge saga, the thought may strike you that Guare hasn't written a play -- he's charted a veritable mini-series. In more ways than one, "Women and Water" is overwhelming. With so much to choose from, it is impossible not to find moments of stunning theatricality, sharp intelligence and mordant irony. That Guare would even undertake such an epic is in itself thrilling. Most plays today give us too little. "Women and Water," however, ends up giving us too much. That may be the biggest irony of all.
The play is actually one of a projected tetralogy, which Guare now calls "the Nantucket cycle" and which eventually will trace nearly 40 years in the intertwining destinies of Lydie Breeze and three Union soliders she befriends on the battlefield. The first installments to be written, "Gardenia" and "Lydie Breeze" (performed last season in tandem at the New Playwrights' Theatre), explored the characters' attempts to found a utopian commune on Nantucket and then looked at the fallout of their charred experiment on their descendants. With "Women and Water," Guare goes back to the beginning of the story.
The rough-and-tumble incidents he serves up are intended to restore luster and truth to 19th-century melodramatics -- a goal also embraced by Peter Sellars when he undertook to reinvent "The Count of Monte Cristo" last spring at the Kennedy Center. At least one segment of our theater is out to recapture the flamboyance of yesteryear's dramaturgy. Still, the blood and thunder of "Women and Water" tend to obscure the underpinnings that would give it real resonance.
While all hell is breaking loose, something else is supposedly happening. Lydie Breeze is acquiring a soul. She will evolve from a dreamy schoolteacher whose "mind is as blank as the bedroom sheets" to an exalted prophet with a shining vision for the future, the vision she will try to implement in "Gardenia." Presumably, the horrors of the Civil War are what inspire her notions of a more perfect society. And it is only by purging the awful skeletons in the past of her seafaring family that she becomes inflamed with notions of the benevolent family of man. But frankly, she is so buffeted by the fates that you wonder when she ever has a second to think.
Periodically, Guare plucks Lydie out of the swirling narrative and lets her address the audience directly -- and more poetically -- from a point later in time. The device, though, makes for a curious gulf, relegating Lydie's reflective nature to sidelines. No sooner, in fact, has she voiced the stirrings in her heart than Guare plunges her back into the fray and the head-over-heels action promptly reduces her to a body in a maelstorm.
Director Douglas C. Wager and Arena's production crew -- set designer Tony Straiges, costumer Marjorie Slaiman and lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes -- have gone to considerable lengths to give "Women and Water" the momentum and excitement of an "Indiana Jones" film. Some of the effects are, indeed, spectacular: ghostly mariners surging out of an opened grave to reenact their tale of rebellion on the ocean; a hulking buzzard plucking away at a soldier's rotting corpse. Much of the time, Wager manages the Herculean task of imposing the fluidity of cinema on the erupting script. But after a while, all the stagecraft pales. We yearn for a simple human connection, an exchange of feelings, the sound of a heartbeat, not the rumble of cannon.
As Lydie, Cary Anne Spear does yeoman's service. Physically slight, she possesses the delicate beauty the pre-Raphaelites admired. Yet she endows Lydie with the starchy don't-buck-me accent of a young Katharine Hepburn and the energy of a wood-burning locomotive. The combination of so much strength and frailty in the same person is often moving, even if Spear fails to fully galvanize the play. For that, it would probably take the likes of Joan of Arc, working hand in glove with Sarah Bernhardt.
As Lydie's twin brother, Tom Hewitt astutely hides his villainy under a ruggedly romantic presence. And the three soliders who come under her thrall are nicely contrasted by John Leonard, John Gegenhuber and Casey Biggs. The rest of the large cast is pressed into multiple duty, the range of which is best illustrated by Stanley Anderson, who first appears as a Union officer, then as an insurance investigator, and finally as a wild pig.
Ultimately, however, "Women and Water" is less than the sum of its multifarious parts. Guare aspires to the "inexorable logic of a tidal wave" as he unfurls his sweeping historical panorama. But he buries that logic so deeply that his play registers primarily as an epic display of flotsam and jetsom.
Part of me says "Wow!" The other part replies, "Oooof!"
Women and Water, by John Guare. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Music, John McKinney; sets, Tony Straiges; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; puppets, Julie Taymor and Robert Flanagan. With John Gegenhuber, John Leonard, Stanley Anderson, Cary Anne Spear, Casey Biggs, Tom Hewitt, Terrence Currier, Richard Bauer, Mark Hammer. At Arena Stage through Jan. 5.