Battledrum's Civil War story line will resonate with young and old alike

A different beat: Patrick Mullen, Mark Holzum and Robert Moore in Battledrums.
A different beat: Patrick Mullen, Mark Holzum and Robert Moore in Battledrums.
Two huge flags — one from the North, one from the South — drape the stage like a tattered curtain that never rises and never falls. The ragged flags loom over the proceedings like specters of carnage. They serve as a constant reminder of the toll that the American Civil War took on this nation as a contest that most pundits thought would end in a month dragged on for four years. Now, as the Civil War's sesquicentennial enters its second year, Metro Theater Company brings Battledrum to the Missouri History Museum, strategically staging this hourlong Civil War musical in close proximity to the museum's current exhibit, The Civil War in Missouri.

Battledrum is not set in Missouri (though it might just as well have been). Instead the story plays out in rural Kentucky in 1863. The plot focuses on three boys — a Union drummer, a Kentucky orphan who's absorbed into a Yankee infantry platoon and a runaway slave — whose lives intersect when Northern troops occupy the border state. Although all three youths are buffeted by hardship and loss, they do their utmost to behave like kids despite the travails of war. The checkerboard that is etched onto a drumhead, for instance, allows for easy access to a game of checkers, though that is the tamest of their activities.

Author Doug Cooney has aimed Battledrum at families with children age nine and up. Allusions to fear abound throughout the hour. "There's nothing like fear to make the flame go higher," one soldier sings as a barn burns down. (The fire is effectively rendered in the evocative lighting designed by John Armstrong.) "My drum makes the fear disappear," one of the boys suggests. Perhaps it does, but the play also makes the stark point that because the drumbeats communicated commands to the soldiers, to silence a drummer was to potentially throw an army into disarray. This explains the inordinately high mortality rate among drummer boys. (The same unhappy fate disproportionately befell flag bearers, whose symbolically loaded weapons served as rallying points during battle.)

The five actors play multiple roles as they strive to give a sense of size to what is essentially an intimate story. Patrick Mullen is the discombobulated Confederate, separated from home and family. Mark Holzum evokes the bravado of the Yankee drummer boy, who wants to be treated with respect by his elders, all of whom are personified in the Corporal (Nicholas Kryah, who also designed the effective set). Robert Moore plays George Washington, the runaway slave who has "crossed the Mason-Dixon so many times, I figure freedom's got my footprints all over it." Susan Elaine Rasch portrays the various female roles and also is pressed into duty as a male soldier.

Carol North has directed the spirited production with well-matched verve. North is always trying to incorporate unusual rhythms into her Metro Theater productions. Here she's not only staging songs (the music by Lee Ahlin has the proper period feel), but she's working with an intelligent script in which the staccato drum rolls are integral to the action. As the thunder of those drums fills the auditorium, we realize that this is a sound we've not heard before on any stage. Leave it to Metro Theater Company to come up with something unusual and resonant — two key ingredients for satisfying family theater.