Intrigued by the cultural and racial issues in several productions in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, I found my way back to Shepherdstown, WV for a thought provoking weekend of theatre. Although the notoriously good though uncomfortable and unsettling Race by David Mamet is sold out, Insurgents could be worth a final weekend trip if seen in tandem with another show.
Set in a small rural town that could be Anywhere-ville, the play focuses on Sally, a rag-tag though promising college athlete who has lost her scholarship and thus any prospects for school.
Struggling to find her sense of purpose when thrust back to the dysfunctional home from which she was trying so desperately to escape, she develops an uneasy alliance with armed and dangerous historical figures while clutching her own double barrel shotgun close to her heart.
In this world premiere by Lucy Thurber, Sally, played by Cassie Beck seeks comfort from the likes of John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner even Timothy McVeigh, and yes, that last one is understandably a stretch, but so is the entire premise so you kind of have to suspend belief and go with the flow.
The spirits offer historical insights about their lives via monologs and sporadic interactions with Sally who is so stressed by her limited life prospects that even her wayward brother and booze guzzling father are concerned for her well being. Stuck in this pitiful trio of hapless souls, Sally escapes into her own interior world, listening attentively to her spirit guides telling their stories.
The production cloaks the historical figures beautifully in shadows and soft lights as they drift into and out of Sally’s consciousness sharing their experiences from all the books she has devoured almost obsessively about them as “research.” One cannot help but be moved by Stacey Sargeant as Harriet Tubman, who delivers some of the most accessible and memorable passages about hearing the voice of God directing her precarious trips through slave fields to guide family and loved ones to freedom. Her account of being busted in the head as a young slave child for punishment was the most touching since in her view, the crack in her skull was the opening that God used to speak to her and assure her safe passage –she never lost a “passenger” even if she had to urge them on with her shotgun.
The John Brown and Nat Turner characters in contrast, seemed more stuck in their biblical tirades and thus, while still powerful, did not have the same emotional connection.
Most striking is the playwright’s doubling of characters so that after John Ottavino as the fiery John Brown delivers his call for justice, he re-enters as Sally’s father. Daniel Morgan Shelley as the solemn Nat Turner brandishes his saber of righteousness then re-enters as her athletic coach, and Sargeant as her college roommate appears as Tubman’s apparition for an effective interweaving of past and present lives in Sally’s subconscious. Lear Debessonet directs the characters’ movements skillfully and the actors adjust their physical mannerisms with ease especially when lining up as the historical icons with their respective profiles behind a shadowed backdrop with superb lighting by D. M Wood.
The Timothy McVeigh character eerily recounts the current bombastic political trip wire arguments blasting “big government” today. Watching Cary Donaldson in the dual role as Sally’s caring older brother underscores McVeigh’s youth and humanity. Still, it might be just a tad too ambitious since it still feels too soon to try to humanize the person responsible for the devastating assault and who was executed exactly three months before the September 11th attacks.
As a new work in progress, Insurgents is getting a rightly deserved opportunity to see if it’s got what it takes for a solid box office run. The script definitely has potential with its creative use of flashbacks, bringing historical figures into a character’s world, and blending the two realities. What’s challenging is trying to respect Sally’s “troubles,” because once juxtaposed with the realities of slavery, today’s “hardships” pale in comparison. When she’s stressed to near meltdown, having her brother suggest that maybe she needs a man doesn’t help, and breaking the third wall at the show’s opening, and ending with a schmaltzy sing-along further erodes the show’s potentially powerful impact.
Beck cradles a shotgun in opening remarks and warns the audience that it’s a harmless prop, demonstrating how to heave and point it. Even though she never fires it, I’m okay with the playwright’s decision to introduce an unused firearm. Having Sally point a double barrel into the audience, even with all of the disclaimers, still produces an apprehensive jolt. Bringing on some of the most incendiary figures in our history, though, and using them as part of a social therapy circle, ends the show on a whimper instead of a powerful roar worthy of the insurgents that the author has conjured up.
In an interview, playwright Lucy Thurber notes her fascination with anything pertaining to John Brown and the enduring raw and emotional impact of slavery’s legacy. Having the opportunity to witness such a production so near the site of the uprising that catalyzed the Civil War is enough to support a promising playwright’s first bold efforts to resurrect these historical touchstones. It’s a start.
Written by Lucy Thurber
Directed by Lear Debessonet
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission