In Suzan-Lori Parks’ engrossing drama “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II and III,” the ambivalent enslaved man Hero — whose hero’s journey we follow through the Civil War — is a flawed hero indeed, if a hero at all.
But he’s entirely, heartbreakingly, human.
As in Homer’s “Odyssey,” Hero goes off to war; in this case, his “master,” a Confederate Army colonel, has promised Hero his freedom if he’ll accompany the master to battle.
And just as Ulysses left behind his faithful wife, Penelope, here Hero (so-named by his master) leaves behind his adoring wife, Penny.
But Parks’ epic diverges from Homer’s, getting increasingly complex — horrifying, hilarious, provocative — as it goes from Part I to III over the Civil War years (Parks, nothing if not ambitious, is aiming for a nine-part series; the remaining six parts are as yet unwritten).
And because Parks is exploring the quest for self-identity as well as examining America’s deepest moral failings, the characters themselves are multi-layered, from the existentially confused Hero (an appealing and vulnerable James Udom) to the stoic, one-footed Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), with whom Hero had once planned to escape and who is now his nemesis; from the tough-minded Penny (Eboni Flowers) to a captive Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) locked in a cage; and from the colonel (Dan Hiatt) to Hero’s loyal dog, Odyssey (Gregory Wallace).
In this American Conservatory Theater production (co-produced by Yale Repertory Theatre), directed by longtime Parks colleague Liz Diamond, all elements coalesce beautifully to illuminate Parks’ rich, poetic dialogue and far-ranging ideas.
Set on a stage that’s bare but for a corrugated tin shack in Part I, then in Part II a “shady grove,” its trees represented by stark, building-site girders, this is a visually minimalist show (set designer, Riccardo Hernández), which makes the occasional looming silhouettes — in which the characters move slowly behind a scrim — stunning.
Diamond’s actors are superb, including a Greek-drama-like chorus of slaves played by Rotimi Agbabiaka, Chivas Michael and, at the press opening, understudy Britney Frazier, plus Steven Anthony Jones as a perhaps not-so-wise surrogate father to Hero.
To pick out just a few especially wonderful moments: Flowers’ anguished lament when told that Hero has died; Wallace’s wide-eyed, disingenuous talking dog; Hiatt’s drunken and sadistic colonel.
To add to the show’s riches, Martin Luther McCoy, as a sort of griot, links the parts together, playing guitar and singing songs Parks’ bluesy songs.
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II and III
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 20
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org