The American Civil War has been the source of countless dramatic endeavors over the years, not only because of its historic significance but because there seems no limit to its usefulness in symbolizing divisiveness.
Mercy Street, the six-part PBS miniseries launching Sunday on KET, isn’t so much about the Civil War itself but about the toll that hatred and prejudice invariably take on individual lives. And what better place to depict that process than a military hospital in Alexandria, Va., a town that originally was part of the new nation’s capital but that had been returned to pre-Confederate Virginia in 1846 at the state’s request because it feared District of Columbia would abolish slavery soon
When a young widow named Mary Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is dispatched to oversee the nurses in the hospital, she is ill-prepared for the human suffering she encounters in what was, until recently, a private home and a hotel owned by the Confederate family of James Green (Gary Cole).
Mary has the support of hospital administrator Dr. Alfred Summers (Peter Gerety) but encounters opposition from arrogant nurse Anne Hastings (Tara Summers) and self-aggrandizing Dr. Byron Hale (Norbert Leo Butz). Hastings, who misses few opportunities to remind others that she worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, thinks she should have been chosen head nurse by Superintendent of Army Nurses Dorothea Dix (Cherry Jones). Similarly, Hale is resentful of the respect accorded to Dr. Jedediah Foster (Josh Radnor), a far more skilled surgeon who is committed to his patients rather than his career.
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It’s no coincidence that Mercy Street will share Sunday nights with the final episodes of Downton Abbey — PBS hopes to capitalize on the British show’s popularity to keep viewers tuned in for Mercy Street. But the two series have something in common beside scheduling real estate: a kind of Upstairs Downstairs focus on social stratification.
Most obviously, that theme is represented by the status of blacks in Alexandria. Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III) and Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant) might be free, but they are often treated as if they still were slaves — not only by Confederates but by the Union soldiers, especially the hospital’s chief steward, a Dickensian embodiment of evil named Silas Bullen (Wade Williams). Samuel harbors a growing affection for Aurelia, who is forced to submit to Bullen’s sexual demands because he’s promised to transport her young son and her mother out of the Confederacy. Samuel worked for a doctor in Philadelphia and learned a number of surgical techniques. As a freed slave, though, he can’t be seen practicing what he’s learned on wounded soldiers.
To its credit, Mercy Street’s writers distribute a complex array of attitudes about race, social status and gender among both Northerners and Confederates. Prejudice didn’t begin and end at the Mason-Dixon line then and doesn’t in our own time. James Green’s elder daughter Emma (Hannah James), whose upbringing never prepared her for much beyond flower arranging and making a good marriage, volunteers at the hospital because Confederate soldiers are not given the same level of care as Union wounded. It isn’t surprising that Hale and Hastings are prejudiced in favor of Union patients, but even Mary shares their point of view for a while.
The series was created with careful attention to detail and character development by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel, who are also among the writers. The script occasionally wanders into Gone With the Wind-style melodrama but is always rescued by excellent performances.
Among the best of the bunch are James, Radnor and Winstead. Butz and Summers edge delightfully close to comic relief. Perhaps the most memorable work comes from several young actors. Jack Falahee, best known for How to Get Away With Murder, plays a passionate young Confederate who sees Abraham Lincoln as the devil incarnate. He brings the zeal of a revolutionary and the naivete of youth to the role. Cameron Monaghan, who has come of age as a member of the cast of Showtime’s Shameless,is heartbreaking as a young Confederate soldier who fears returning to the horrors of battle. Grant and Belcher are extraordinary in their ability to personify the heritage of cruelty and tentative hope for the future of former slaves.
The fact that PBS has created original content for the first time in many years is significant. More important, the fact that it’s as well done as Mercy Street only adds to our hope that more will follow.
‘Mercy Street’ premieres at 10 p.m. Jan. 17 on KET.