CAMBRIDGE — I want to start with the dog. That might seem an odd point of departure for a projected nine-part epic like “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” the first three sections of which the American Repertory Theater has just opened at the Loeb Drama Center. But playwright Suzan-Lori Parks did win a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her drama “Topdog/Underdog.” And Part 3 of “Father” draws on the poignant episode from Homer’s “Odyssey” in which Odysseus returns home to Ithaca, after 20 years, and is recognized by his faithful dog, Argos, who gives a wag of his tail before giving up the ghost. Parks’s wall-eyed dog is named “Odd-See,” because his eyes “go this way and that.” Sporting an oversize shaggy sweater and sneakers, panting and slavering and rolling onto his back to have his tummy rubbed, he’s not just faithful, he’s a hoot.
But Odd-See is only one of many rewarding characters in “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” which goes this way and that as it examines what it means to be free, and what it means to be true. Parks’s trilogy, which debuted at New York’s Public Theater in October, is set during the Civil War, but she has emphasized that this “is not the History Channel. It’s very much a mash-up.” Her characters mix references to Shakespeare and Genesis with current slang. They wear cargo pants and Crocs. Strumming a banjo and an acoustic guitar, music director Steven Bargonetti sings some of Parks’s own songs, like “This Bright Wilderness” and “Misplaced Myself.”
Part 1, “A Measure of a Man,” takes us to a “modest” slave plantation in rural Texas. It’s 1862, and personal slave Hero is facing a difficult decision. Should he stay home with wife, Penny (Odysseus’s wife is named Penelope), and fellow slave Homer and the rest of his friends? Or should he go to war with his “Boss-Master” Colonel and fight for the wrong side — the Confederacy — with the understanding that if he survives, he’ll be set free.
In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” Hero, having chosen door number two, finds himself and the Colonel stranded between the lines and in possession of a wounded Union captain named Smith, from the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. Part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” brings Hero back, under the new name of Ulysses (referring to the Latin name of Odysseus but also to Union commanding General Ulysses S. Grant). Penny is waiting for him, but unlike Penelope, she hasn’t quite kept every potential suitor at bay. And Hero/Ulysses, unlike Odysseus, has some baggage. He also has a copy of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation promising freedom to all — but freedom to do what?
Neil Patel’s set for the ART’s thrust stage is simple and suitably timeless. Parts 1 and 3 comprise a primitive weathered gray slave shack, with a couple of tree trunks emerging from parched grass and, at the back, the slope of a hillside. For Part 2, the shack is replaced by the wooden cage in which Smith is confined. ESosa’s equally appropriate costumes range from believably period to shabby-but-hip contemporary.
The cast, under director Jo Bonney, invests all this with ease and spontaneity, breaking the fourth wall frequently to address the audience. The quartet of “Less Than Desirable Slaves” — Charlie Hudson III, Julian Rozzell Jr., Tonye Patano, and Jacob Ming-Trent — is a Greek chorus with attitude, and Harold Surratt radiates hard-won authority as the Oldest Old Man. Ming-Trent doubles as Odd-See, channeling the messengers in Greek drama who spin out their reports interminably. (Ming-Trent’s roles will be taken by Patrena Murray starting Feb. 6.) Michael Crane is so natural as Smith, he hardly seems to be acting; Ken Marks’s Colonel is more convincing as a sadist than when he’s trying to be nice.
Jenny Jules’s bright, exuberant Penny is the emotional anchor of the trilogy, even after Part 3 reveals a series of promises kept and promises broken. There are, in fact, surprises in all three parts. Benton Greene’s Hero at first seems improbably callow, but perhaps that’s deliberate, since he grows more manly in the course of the evening. Sekou Laidlow’s self-assured Homer, on the other hand, knows who he is from the beginning, and he and Greene come to look like different sides of the same coin. It seems clear, as Parts 4-9 bring the time frame forward into the present, that Hero and Homer, and their descendants, will be the focus of “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” Parts 1-3 can lag on occasion, as when the Colonel persists in asking Smith whether he wouldn’t love to be a slave owner. But even after three hours of watching on Wednesday, I was ready to see more. That’s the mark of a good story.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.