MOBILE, Alabama -- Saturday was a day for daunting battles. Florida Atlantic University faced grim prospects in Tuscaloosa, LSU ventured into peril in Auburn, and Bernardo de Gálvez invaded Mobile for the second time.
Gálvez came in with a winning record, though his sole previous victory had taken place more than 200 years ago. Back then, it was Gálvez himself, leading a fleet that took the city away from the British home team. On Saturday, it was actor Chaz Mena, depicting Gálvez in the one-man play “Yo Solo, I Alone” at the Mobile Saenger Theatre.
The original Gálvez had it easy: He just had to lay siege to Fort Charlotte after having his fleet wrecked by a storm in Mobile Bay. Mena sailed in at the end of a gorgeous September Saturday, meaning he had to compete with every outdoor charm the Gulf Coast has to offer. He also went head-to-head with an Auburn-LSU match that had turned out to be particularly interesting.
This was not auspicious scheduling for a history lesson, and it showed in the turnout, which appeared to number fewer than 250 people. Robert Sain, the executive director of the Centre for the Living Arts and one of the architects of a 2012-2013 Saenger season that puts less emphasis on popular music in favor of a diverse range of theatrical shows, began the evening by inviting thinly scattered patrons to move on up to the Saenger’s first few rows.
Mena, like Gálvez, was undaunted by the odds. He schmoozed the audience just as charmingly as Gálvez, in his depiction, entered New Orleans society as governor of Spanish Louisiana. He worked every inch of the stage, making the most of every prop, up to and including the three members of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra who were on stage to provide accompaniment.
Like Gálvez, Mena brought fire as well as charm, portraying a man with a thirst for victory that ran through each of his colorful anecdotes. The first army he led out of New Orleans, the one that took Baton Rouge from the British, was a bunch of “misfits,” he said, a ragtag band of irregulars who spoke in French and Spanish and cursed in English. As he described his epic battle for Pensacola, even the slow, humble work of trenching seemed dramatic.
The real delight of the evening came from Mena’s ability to relate Gálvez’ Gulf Coast campaign – which ultimately drove the British out of a stronghold at Pensacola – to the broader context of the American Revolution. Mena’s Gálvez quoted John Adams (“Fear is the foundation of most governments”), praised Gen. George Washington and marveled at the way that in this new land, diverse groups of men could come together to fight for their liberty.
For anyone driven to despair by the squabbling of the current presidential campaign, such talk could serve as a welcome tonic. In this sense at least, the presentation couldn’t have been better timed.