This is not one of those times where the typically short Fringe running time is a blessing. Leaving Sage of Blackwell, you wish you could spend another hour in this world, learning about the struggles, joys and regrets of these characters. It’s like an all-too-brief visit with your favorite older relative, getting another chance to hear tales of days past, if said relative had a crack team of actors to bring the stories to life.
In this case, the relative we’re lucky to spend time with is Runyon Law, fully inhabited by Bob Hurley, the eponymous “Sage of Blackwell.” Law (and Hurley as well) is a lifelong union man, whose main work in his time on Earth was to fight for better conditions for his fellow workers at his airplane factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is an example of a type we don’t see too much in our fiction these days – the earthy, practical fishin’ man who also happens to be a diehard labor activist – since our popular entertainment prefers to portray our rural types as staunch conservatives. Law is, nevertheless, instantly familiar, and Hurley gives him such an easy and natural conviction that you might mistake this for an autobiographical play without the program’s help.
It is, in fact, a work of fiction, from the pen of Arthur Luby. Luby’s last piece was Paul Gonsalves On the Road and it seems his craft has improved greatly since his last showing. The play is not a traditional one with mounting conflict and an explosive climax; rather, it is an amicable journey through the life and times of one man and his community, building up simple, acute details like small brushstokes on a painting. The final portrait is difficult to characterize as either sad or cheerful, bittersweet or ambivalent; like most of the best art, it simply is what it is, and you’re free to take from it what emotional experience you wish.
At times, the play does get too amicable and relaxed, mainly when favoring Law expounding on events of the past via monologue rather than dramatizing them. Such moments are when a greater run time, and thus more opportunity to, for example, let us actually see Law’s decision to run for vice president of the union, rather than have him simply tell us that he decided to run, would give the story greater vigor and even more engagement. But if a play’s greatest sin is that it offers only enough good stuff to make you feel like you’re getting a little bit cheated, it would seem it is in pretty good shape overall.
Sage of Blackwell
by Arthur Ruby
at Main Stage – Goethe Institut
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
In this way, by not taking a polemical, one-sided stance, Luby fulfills his stated goal of showing “the impact and personal cost” of collective bargaining on the workers and union organizers. They’re not heroes fighting against some great evil, but flawed humans doing their best to untangle morally unclear situations. It’s no wonder, near the end of his life, that Law resorts so much to the whiskey bottle for some peace of mind.
If the play falls short of perfection,, given all that it achieves, it is, again, because of the monologues pasting over gaps in the low-temperature drama. Director Angelisa Gillyard does excellent moment-to-moment work with the conversations and arguments, but has avoided punching up the play, and Law’s soliloquies, too much. It’s a wise choice, perhaps, even if it reveals that one main flaw in Luby’s script.
Sage of Blackwell is an unpretentious, straightforward dish of history and regrets; while in many ways the opposite of standard Fringe fare, it will stick in your memory for a good while.