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theatre review

Lisa Berry and Daren A. Herbert in ‘Father Comes Home From The Wars’ at Soulpepper.Cylla von Tiedemann

We're living in as great a time for American playwriting as any that came before.

The latest proof comes in the form of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts I, II and III), a masterful and moving new three-act play from Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks – now getting its swift, terrific Canadian premiere at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Parks has written an epic inspired by The Odyssey and set during the American Civil War. As the slaves on a Southern plantation await the rising of the sun, they take bets on whether Hero (a commanding Dion Johnstone) will go to fight alongside his master or stay at home.

Hero's conundrum is immediately compelling: If he fights, his master has promised to grant him his freedom at the end of the war. But if he fights, he will be fighting on the side of maintaining the system of slavery.

There are added complications on a personal level. Hero's father figure, the Oldest Old Man (Walter Borden), wants him to go off, while his partner, Penny (Lisa Berry), yearns for him to stay with her.

Then, there's Homer (Daren A. Herbert) – a man with a complicated relationship to Hero, who once tried to run away from the plantation and had his foot cut off as punishment.

Homer thinks Hero should choose not to choose. "'Cause both choices, Hero, to stay here and work the field, to go there and fight in the field, both choices are nothing more than the same coin flipped over and over," he says. "And the coin ain't even in your pocket."

In her rich, resonant script, Parks pays homage to the ancient Greek forms of drama – with wonderful riffs on the chorus and recurring classical characters such as the Old Man. (Indeed, Peter Fernandes's portrayal of a unique and yet familiar Messenger is such a delight, such a moment of theatrical genius, I can't spoil it by writing anything about it.)

But Parks's language and concerns always have a foot firmly in today. Her dialogue moves from the poetic to direct, from the past to the present, and she takes contemporary expressions and reframes them in classical contexts – like the repeated refrains of "True dat, true dat, true dat" chanted by a chorus of runaway slaves in the third play.

For this Canadian premiere, Soulpepper has assembled a tremendous cast of actors – who, like the text, do not stick to a single style.

The powerful Berry and Walter Borden have the most convincingly "Greek" presences – channelling the words as if they are a conduit between the past and present, or the Earth and the heavens.

Johnstone has a commanding presence that tastes of the Ontario classical stage – Shakespearean, slightly aloof.

As for Herbert as Homer, he has his own very natural presence on stage, sounding the most rooted in contemporary culture, and barely repressing his comic instincts. This diversity in the performances, the let-the-actors-be-themselves approach, makes for a rich stew of a production – where there may be one character named Hero, but you never know who the real hero (or heroine) might be.

Director Weyni Mengesha's production also combines classical and contemporary body language to great effect – most chillingly in the second play, in a moment where Hero raises his hands in the air, imagining what it will be like encountering patrollers when he can no longer say he is the property of a white man.

As universal and compelling as the themes are – what is the value of a human? to what extent is freedom really possible? – Parks has also written a ripping yarn here. I was caught by surprise on several occasions by how Parks subverts expectations – of Greek tragedies, or of slave narratives.

Part II takes place on a Civil War battlefield where we meet Hero's master (Oliver Dennis), now a colonel in the rebel army – and a wounded, strongly abolitionist Union soldier whom he has captured named Smith (Gregory Prest).

My initial impression that Parks had set the stage for a standard, humanist Shavian debate – the good white man versus the bad white man – was soon stunningly upturned.

Then, in Part III, Parks returns to the plantation where Penny waits for the return of Hero – while Homer tries to get her to leave with a group of runaways when darkness falls. I thought I knew what was coming – but here she takes the most daring leap, away from tragedy altogether, refusing to give us another black story that ends in blood.

While Parks is inspired by the Greeks, she's also writing in a new tradition being carved out by mainly female English-language playwrights.

I'm thinking here of American playwright Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play (2005, seen in Toronto in 2013) and Rona Munro's The James Plays (2014, recently remounted at the Luminato Festival).

In all these three-play cycles, we find female playwrights taking a historical theatrical form, showing they can conquer it as well as any dead male playwright ever did, then twist it subtly in the second part, before finally transcending it.

In the case of Father Comes Home from the Wars and The James Plays, the parallels are fascinating – a tonal shift toward comedy, the moving of a secondary female character to the centre of the story, and a refusal to submit to Aristotelian demands.

It's been a long-term project of the great American playwrights to bring tragedy to America – from Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman – but while Suzan-Lori Parks joins them with Father Comes Home from the Wars, she also goes beyond.

Father Comes Home from the Wars runs until Aug. 27 (