written by Kenneth M. Cameron
directed by Walt Witcover
produced by Rep Stage
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Intelligence, a fictionalized tale of Central Intelligence, is taut, tight, almost thriller-like in its total command of the moment. The backdrop hints at high stakes CIA political maneuverings, behind the scenes, of course, in volatile Central America during the Iran Contra era. Blend the political intrigue with ruminations about the insidious effects of power, the corrupting influence of money, family duties, living with one’s life choices, let alone love and idealism, and you’ve got a bona fide hit, tailor made for today’s signs and times. The fact that it was written nearly a quarter century ago and is just getting its world premiere at Rep Stage adds real life intrigue to the heated drama.
Leo Erickson portrays the intense main character, John Stella, the Commander and Chief of Intelligence operations, as if it’s the role of his career. Pacing the stage like a caged panther and spitting out lines with vitriolic verve, Erickson commands complete and undivided attention throughout. In the opening scene, he selects and pulls out books from the massive beautiful oak bookcases and discards them haphazardly on the floor with only fleeting meaningless glances. With just a few strokes, the playwright, Kenneth Cameron along with razor sharp director Walt Witcover, relay how beautiful and historic texts, ready surrogates for human life, are easily and even pointlessly discarded. That a life can be snuffed out in an instant is par for the course in volatile uprisings, but the point is relentlessly drilled home with the meticulous firearm preparation rituals that the operatives go through each time the study door is opened. The conscientious (and loud) opening and closing the gun magazine, hoisting it carefully in position and announcing “gun” throughout the piece reinforces the expendability of human life, that we are all just a trigger-happy finger away from certain death.
Stella has met his match in the young upstart, Bevan Danie,l nicely played by Benjamin Kingsland who has been selected to ghost write a book, a sort of a memoir about Stella’s life. Daniel is a kind of sparring partner, a fellow intellectual juggernaut, and they go through duels and matches throughout the play, sometimes ferociously, bringing out the best and worst of each other, reducing each to his utmost vulnerability, to display if only fleetingly what’s behind the impenetrable protective facades that each has carefully constructed. Full of the confidence and swagger of a young genius writer, Daniel volleys back his share of insults and strikes an ace or two goading Stella to spew such nuggets as “People make themselves slaves to illusion,” “Intelligence is instinct,” and when Daniel counters with unflinching loyalty to his idealist beliefs, Stella taunts him with “I didn’t know such ignorance existed in a white man,” and my favorite, a dismissive -“the s.o.b. thought he was free.”
Stella deals with one international crisis after another and tries to avert a meltdown when a popular leftist leader returns to his Central American homeland. Throughout, he is treated like royalty with deference and obsequious respect, rapt attention to his every want, urge or need, even preemptively, by the operatives, nicely played by Elliot Dash and Christine Demuth. Discounted as underling drones, they provide surprisingly effective glimpses into Stella’s strange inner world and psyche.
His only moments of humanity shine when his wife enters, beautifully rendered by renowned actress and producer Prudence Barry portraying early touching stages of dementia. Only then is Stella reduced to his most vulnerable and potentially compromised states. His tight facial expressions loosen, his physical presence becomes protective while he hovers over her as if ready to absorb any errant blows of attack while she flutters in and out of reality. They share intimate bits of care and affection, reflecting lighthearted moments of years past, shedding the oppressive weight of reality like meaningless flakes. After all of this heartfelt tenderness, her exit prompts Stella to sling yet another zinger, this time about women as a necessary evil- “They kill us with their weakness,” citing Joe DiMaggio’s fall from grace via the tumultuous and voluptuous Marilyn Monroe.
Amidst insinuations of firepower, death squads, rigged assassinations, artillery, and bomb threats, Cameron finds a way to relay the power of the written word. It’s a fascinating conundrum – Stella’s compelling need to capture his life story -safely sanitized and sanctioned of course– written and shared for the world to see while his actual life is caged up, almost literally in the bondage of security.
Such fresh torn-from-the-headlines appeal makes you wonder how could a piece that so effectively mirrors the culture of intelligence and homeland security, with a matrix-like confluence of national events and personal values sit tucked in a drawer for nearly twenty-five years? Why finally reach the stage now? And why this stage? Several “truth stranger than fiction” moments included Witcover’s involvement and attempts to get it produced in New York all those many years ago. Although it appealed to acting legend Uta Hagan and Darrin McGavin (TV’s Night Stalker), it never found its footing. Maybe it was ahead of it’s time and just needed to wait for Rep Stage’s tender care and attention. Whatever the alignment of stars that made it happen, we are all the better for it. Intelligence is urgently fascinating, and I swear, you don’t get any more relevant or compelling theater than this.
Running Time: 2:30 with 1 intermission
When: Thru November 9th. Wednesday & Thursday 7:30 (Wed is PWYC); Friday & Saturday at 8, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 2:30
Where: Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center’s Studio Theatre at Howard Community College,10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Maryland
Call: Box Office: 410-772-4900 or consult the website.