“The first time I heard them was right here in Galesburg,” playwright Tim Lord ’98 writes of the crows that inspired him to create “Peloponnesus.” The play’s title is the first shock: how can a Greek peninsula relate to rural Illinois? It turns out the largeness of the mythology surrounding Greek history is the perfect setting in which to explore the almost surreal pull of the past, personified in Lord’s play by a small Midwestern town. “Peloponnesus” is presented as a simple staged reading, but the potency of the play’s message does not need dramatic lighting and costumes. All it needs is dialogue.
The play opens with Tom (freshman Tyler Sauter) returning to his hometown of New Athens for the first time in 11 years. He’s there for his mother’s funeral, but he quickly becomes enamored with Rachel (junior Avecena Hollingsworth), who works in his brother Jared’s (freshman Mitch Wise) bar. Their lives are overshadowed by the murder of a Sparta man by Tom’s father many years prior, sparking a rivalry between the two towns that manifests again the moment Tom accidentally steps off the bus in Sparta instead of New Athens. It follows him as he becomes more attached to Rachel, who carries a secret that reinforces for Tom just how strongly the past still influences life in the present.
The allusion to classical Greek drama in the play is obvious. “Peloponnesus” refers to the peninsula of the same name in Greece where the infamous Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta occurred in the fourth century B.C. The play even includes a chorus, whose rhythmic lines mimic the caws of crows flying over the fields. That Lord chose to address issues of place, past and personal identity in the context of (ancient) history reveals the core message of the play: the past is inescapable, no matter how much one tries to push it aside.
Lord says in the program notes that he wrote the play to explore his connection to the Midwest – to explore how, even as he moved away where he had grown up, his heart kept calling him back. This subconscious permeation of one’s self with the soul of one’s hometown is conveyed through the complete and total absorption of the audience into the world of the play. It doesn’t matter that the Midwestern imagery of the play may not resonate with non-Midwestern viewers, because here’s the second shock: the play is not about the Midwest, not really. It’s about how, no matter how far away you go and how long you stay away, your hometown still draws you back. The tension between the characters and their pasts is universal. “We don’t have to let them get to us,” Jared says as the crows swirl around the characters. But how can they not, when the place is so deeply rooted in their beings?
That such profundity can be conveyed through a reading is a testament to the skill of the actors. Hollingsworth, who typically works on the more technical side of Knox theater, is as skilled on the stage as she is off of it, flawlessly portraying Rachel’s frustration as the past she hopes to escape keeps pulling her back. Sauter’s Tom is multilayered, with apathy masking his guilt for giving his father the shotgun so many years ago. Even the chorus, the members of which must switch between many characters, stands out: freshman Corey Tatz’s sassy, ghostly “messenger” provides much-needed comic relief even as he heralds the play’s ultimately tragic conclusion.
“There’s no place to run when the horizon stretches on forever,” Tom says. For Lord and his characters, the history of New Athens and Sparta refuses to disappear – in the ghosts Jared hears, in the repetition of the past in the fates of Tom and Rachel and in the stable monotony of the family bar while the world crashes down outside. The imagery of “Peloponnesus” will strike a chord with Midwestern viewers, but it will remind all viewers, uneasily at times, that the past always catches up with you.