"So, these two re-enactors walk into a bar," begins Glen Coffman.
No, it's not a joke. It's a setup for Winding Road Theater Ensemble's "Row After Row," which previews tonight and opens Friday.
Coffman, the director of the world premiere of Jessica Dickey's comedy, says that line keeps running through his head.
So, these two Civil War re-enactors do walk into a bar, fresh from restaging the bloody battle known as Pickett's Charge in Gettysburg. They are set to sit at "their" table to rehash the battle, as they do every year.
But someone is sitting there. A woman. And she's just participated in the re-enactment. Which doesn't sit well with one of these two fellows. He insists if the exercise were going to be historically accurate, there would be no females in the battles. Besides, her uniform is all wrong.
"You don't see plays about re-enactors every day," Coffman says dryly.
Time shifts in this play - from the present, back to the battle, and into the present again. The three characters play the modern-day re-enactors, as well as the characters they portray in the re-enactment.
"One of the things it's about is the past resonating in the present," Coffman says.
"There's the connection of the present-day characters with the people they re-enact."
Coffman and his wife, Toni Press-Coffman, co-founders of Winding Road, came across this new play last year and quickly made up their minds to stage it this season.
"It was only 30 pages long, but we loved the characters, situations and writing," Coffman says.
The playwright had always intended to expand it into a full production, and with the goal of staging it with Winding Road, she did just that. (Press-Coffman wasn't the only astute reader of the script: The Women's Project will give "Row After Row" its New York City debut next year.)
Coffman has been doing his homework for the play, studying up on the Civil War, and even visiting Gettysburg last summer.
Pickett's Charge took place on July 3, 1863, the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Gen. Robert E. Lee, frustrated by the lack of progress at Gettysburg, ordered the charge, named after one of the three Confederate generals who led the battle.
The commander, James Longstreet, knew failure was imminent as more than 12,000 of his men charged across an open field toward the Union soldiers. More than 50 percent of the Southern soldiers died.
Going to Gettysburg, Coffman says, "allowed me to more easily visualize what the soldiers were seeing." That became a key element in his bringing the play to life.
Still, there are challenges to directing a three-actor play that jumps time periods and characters.
That's something Coffman, an experienced director, already knew how to do.
"A lot of it is going to be done with lights and sound," he says. "That's an efficient way to move from past to present."
The time changes are made clear, too, as the language is adjusted slightly to make the characters distinct, and historically accurate.
"And the physicality of the two time periods is different," Coffman says. "One guy is a loose canon in the present, and in the past he is a confederate general from Virginia - very much not a loose canon."
The play is a comedy, Coffman says. But it has its thoughtful side, too.
"One of the things about it is how the past resonates in the present. ... There's lots of language about looking back and looking ahead. It's not only about personal past and present, but historical past in the present."
If you go
• What: Winding Road Theater Ensemble's world-premiere production of "Row After Row."
• By: Jessica Dickey.
• Director: Glen Coffman.
• When: Previews at 7:30 p.m. today; opens 7:30 p.m. Friday. Regular performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 5.
• Where: Beowulf Alley Theatre, 11 S. Sixth Ave.
• Cost: Preview, $15; regular performances, $20, with discounts available.
• Reservations, information: 401-3626, or windingroadtheater.org
• Cast: Emilee Foster, Michael Gifford and Steve Wood.
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4128.