The Long Walk

HeaderA fair sized and attentive audience witnessed the second performance of Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk last night at the CAPA Theater. Considering the intensity of the subject matter and music, each of the two acts runs a few minutes over an hour, making the work just the right length. While Stephanie Fleischmann’s concise adaptation of Brian Castner’s gut wrenching tale of his difficulties in assimilating back into family and civilian life after serving as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Captain with the U. S. Air Force in Iraq, the libretto, like Mr. Castner’s book, makes it obvious at all times that he is by no means the only person to suffer this ordeal; the grim reality that so many veterans struggle with similar, equal, or worse challenges permeates the work throughout.

Header (1)“’The Crazy’ is winning,” Mr. Castner writes in the opening pages of his book that shares the opera’s title, “so I run… ‘The Crazy’ in my chest is full to bursting.” In the first act, certainly, it’s clear that “The Crazy” is indeed winning. Something as seemingly innocuous as his wife giving a son a “count down” to start eating his carrots at dinner is enough to bring the ghosts of Iraq back to haunt him. His wife Jessie fears that her grandmother’s prophecy that even veterans who return alive have had a part of them die in combat service, and that the husband she knew is gone forever, never to return. Packing another son’s hockey equipment brings a harrowing flashback of a comrade “suiting up” to take “The Long Walk.” He is tortured by the memory of almost shooting a group of Iraqi women to end their wails of grief – nearly everything in his life takes him back, gnawing at him. Once he seeks psychiatric advice, hope begins to shine through that, while many hurdles remain to be cleared, Brian’s constant running is taking him a bit further from the past – and closer to a future offering solace and peace – with each step.

Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) gets help from the Shrink (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Shannon Jennings), who diagnoses him with Blast-induced Traumatic Brain Injury

Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) gets help from the Shrink (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Shannon Jennings), who diagnoses him with Blast-induced Traumatic Brain Injury

The music of the work, especially that of the first act, tends to bombastic dissonances in the orchestration, while the vocal parts are declamatory in nature – sweet and melodic arias would be entirely out of place, so the composer wisely omits them, while in the second act, there are a few places where less trying strains appropriately come as a balm to the ear. The music flows constantly, too, allowing for no breaks that might cause the work to lose momentum. Staging such complex psychological drama is an enormous challenge, especially when the action so frequently jumps from a Humvee in Iraq to a home in Buffalo, but the direction and design of the piece, best represented by the accompanying photographs, works, with much help from the cleverly thought out lighting and stage effects.

Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) comforts her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) after he woke from a nightmare

Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) comforts her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) after he woke from a nightmare

The powerful orchestration was conducted with vigor by Glenn Lewis – sometimes with a bit too much enthusiasm, but the singers wisely made no attempt to force their voices to be heard over the instrumental onslaught. These occasional lapses aside, the orchestra was an integral, compelling part of the performance. Baritone Benjamin Taylor made an impressive showing as Brian. He acted the part with a keen understanding and study of the role, and vocally was very satisfying, even in the spots where he is required to run in place and sing at the same time – no easy thing to do successfully. He was an audience favorite, and deservedly so.

Leah de Gruyl (Jessie) possesses a mezzo-soprano of compelling warmth that is always a pleasure to listen to, and she acted the role of Brian’s frustrated but loving and understanding wife with an appropriate sense of the dramatic restraint required by her complex role. CAPA graduate Adrianna Cleveland (Perneatha) sang a heart rending scene with a gospel flair as the grieving widow of a fallen soldier, and the brief moments that blended her voice with Ms. de Gruyl’s were mesmerizing.

Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) struggles to read a bedtime story to his children Samuel (River Beckas), Virgil (Simon Nigam), and Martin (Harrison Salvi)

Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) struggles to read a bedtime story to his children Samuel (River Beckas), Virgil (Simon Nigam), and Martin (Harrison Salvi)

The opera is quite a rarity in that it includes a little singing for child characters. River Beckas (Samuel), Harrison Salvi (Martin) and Simon Nigam (Virgil) were charming as three of Brian’s and Jessie’s sons, and sang and acted like seasoned veterans. The singing required of them is not of the sort that damages undeveloped vocal chords – the reason children, aside from augmenting the chorus, are virtually non-existent in this musical genre.

Other singers, some Resident Artists and some making their first appearances with Pittsburgh Opera, rounded out the cast very capably. Shannon Jennings did triple duty, as Aunt Sarah, an Iraqi woman and the “Shrink,” the last part affording the best display of her lovely voice. Ashley Fabian, another gifted young singer, appeared in two roles, an Iraqi woman and Yogini. Eric Ferring, the gifted and reliable tenor, was Ricky, a role that left the listener wanting his part to be larger. We’ll hear a lot more of the young man next month. Thomas Shivone (Jeff) and Martin Bakari (Castleman) completed the cast as Brian’s other haunting compatriots.

Perneatha Evans (Adrianna Cleveland) mourns her husband Kermit at his funeral

Perneatha Evans (Adrianna Cleveland) mourns her husband Kermit at his funeral

Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist productions – season in and season out – prove to be presentations of which the company may be proud. Hundreds of aspirants audition for the handful of slots available, and that the cream of the crop make the final cut is amply demonstrated every winter. There are only two more chances to catch The Long Walk, and the production is highly recommended.

For tickets and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

The “Artistic Team” for The Long Walk  –

Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Stage Director, Frances Rabalais; Set Designer, Katy Fetrow; Costume Coordinator, Jason Bray; Lighting Designer, Tlàloc Lopez-Watermann; Sound Designer/Engineer, Gladstone Butler; Wig and Makeup Designer, Nicole Pagano; Guest Pianist, Djordje Nesic; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

David Bachman Photography



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