Well, I finally got back to Wayside Theatre this week, to attend a matinee of their current offering. I am deeply disappointed in myself that I did not get out there for their previous production, The Gin Game, which starred two of my favorite actors of...um... mature years, James Laster and Faith Potts. I lost track of their run, and missed the whole thing. I like The Gin Game (I saw stage legend Julie Harris and stage ham Charles Durning play it years ago), and I see that cranky male role in my future.
Anyhoo, I did not want to miss Wayside's current show, which carries the informative title of Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse. Well, that gives us some of the exposition right there: we know going in that we will be getting some Civil War history. Actually, pre-Civil War history, but that's just nitpicking. The play details the abolitionist raid perpetrated by Brown on the little town of Harpers Ferry, VA, just a few years before some Confederate rebels fired cannon balls onto Fort Sumter and ignited the Civil War.
The playwright here is Warner Crocker, who is also Wayside's artistic director; he directs the vast majority of the theatre's shows, and hires all the actors. He has written the best play in the English language, better than Hamlet and even The Odd Couple. Do you doubt my sincerity? Anyway, Warner makes a good case that the raid he is dramatizing lights the fuse which will soon explode into the War Between the States. I don't remember studying this event, which is odd for a number of reasons. I spent all but one year of my public schooling in Georgia, whose curriculum included substantial emphasis on the history of the Civil War. Maybe I was out sick the day we covered the John Brown Raid, who knows? But my lack of background knowledge actually enhanced my interest in this story, which is told effectively by a cast of men who play about a hundred characters.
The stars of the show are two very talented actors, John Alcott and John Dow (except they really aren't the stars; the ensemble surrounding them tells more of the story). Alcott is a Chicago based actor who has appeared at Wayside many times over the years. We spent a bit of social time together quite a while ago, when he claims I passed out at a party, from too many martinis. Not true, I was just resting my eyes. I particularly remember John's lovely, low-keyed work as Uncle Adolf in Last Night of the Ballyhoo, in which he dominated the stage from his easy chair. In this current offering, he dominates the stage with passionate fanaticism and lots of facial hair.
I don't know John Alcott very well, but he was quite complementary of my work in Man of La Mancha, so of course he is now my best friend.
John Dow, who is playing Robert E. Lee, is one of my DC compatriots. We have done many staged readings together, in addition to appearing in full productions of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (where we shared an interest in frozen grapes) and Lee Blessing's Thief River (in which he played me, twenty years later. Never mind, it's too difficult to explain...).
These two Johns are very effective as John Brown and Robert E. Lee, and their lone scene together is the linchpin of the play. The production is peopled with a wide range of folks, including one who may be the most famous American slave in history. No, I don't mean Toby from Roots or Mammy from Gone With the Wind, I mean Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and became a high-profile abolitionist. Stephen Seales plays the role here, and his well-reasoned arguments with the hot-headed John Brown create lots of dramatic fire.
But as I mentioned, there are hundreds and hundreds of other characters in this play, from raiders to soldiers to militiamen to politicians to slaves (even the president shows up). They are all played by Wayside's intern company, plus a local hire or two. These actors are refugees from La Mancha, so I had some fun watching these familiar faces put their own particular spin on each character. A special shout-out has to go to Vaughn Irving (I've written about this kid before), who delivers a whole lot of words while he's dying, and is pretty cute in a 4-second role as the President's Clerk. Vaughn has worked long and hard at Wayside and elsewhere, and must be feeling proud that this show's program is the first in which his name appears with an asterisk. (It denotes his new Equity status; welcome to the profession, Vaughn, now get out your checkbook, your dues are due.)
This show has particular resonance in the Wayside territory, as the raid happened nearby, and this part of the Shenandoah Valley is lousy with Civil War re-enactors. I confess I don't understand this phenomenon, but who am I to judge? There are many folks out there who enjoy dressing up in Civil War garb (I was warned to call it "attire," rather than "costumes"), and some of them have been coming to see the show all decked out (did I hear some even brought their guns? I hope they checked them at the box office). Throughout the year, this area of Virginia hosts actual re-enactments of the various local battles, with otherwise normal people dressing up in their "attire" and pretending to fight the battles again. At my matinee, there was one tall teenager dressed in the gray hat and coat of the Confederate Army (his pants must have been at the cleaners, as he was wearing sweatpants. But they were gray...).
As I confessed, I don't quite understand the region's giddy celebration of such a bitter period of their history. I don't know if there is any kind of an African-American population in the area, but if there is, I doubt they spend much time dressing up in slave garb and walking Main Street with chains around their ankles.
Well, Lighting the Fuse is being revived at Wayside to coincide with the John Brown Raid's sesquicentennial, which is a word I cannot pronounce but I know it means 150th anniversary. Brown does not look like much of a hero to me, though his motive to end slavery was pure. Today we would call him a terrorist, or at least an insurgent. Warner does a nice job of humanizing both John Brown and Robert E. Lee, who was summoned to clean up the mess Brown caused. Brown was executed (spoiler alert!), but the encounter helped Lee decide to lead the Confederate forces in the war which was sparked by this brief event.