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Posted August 20, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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'Lighting the Fuse': Wayside original explores John Brown, Robert E. Lee

By M.K. Luther -- mkluther@nvdaily.com

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John Alcott, as John Brown, lies on a stretcher and talks with John Dow, as Col. Robert E. Lee, as they rehearse the Wayside Theatre production of "Robert E. Lee and John Brown, Lighting the Fuse." Dennis Grundman/Daily

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Dow stands over Alcott as they rehearse a scene. Both men are reprising their roles in the play after originally performing it in 2004. Dennis Grundman/Daily
FRONT ROYAL -- History cannot seem to deliver a definitive judgment on whether legendary abolitionist John Brown was a martyred hero or a fanatical villain, whether he was a man willing to take up arms for a cause, or a megalomaniac zealot consumed by a religious crusade.

Brown, a fervent anti-slavery activist, led a raid on an armory at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., in an attempt to arm slaves and start a full-fledged rebellion. The raid was thwarted by local militia and Robert E. Lee, then a colonel, and most men in Brown's party were killed or captured. Brown was tried and executed in 1859.

The event both polarized and clarified the nation's struggle with the slavery issue and became a key event leading up to the Civil War.

To some, Brown's fervent dedication to abolishing slavery warranted turning to violence; to others, Brown's invocation of God to justify his revolutionary actions went too far.

Now, in the 150th anniversary year of the infamous raid, Wayside Theatre is presenting "Robert E. Lee and John Brown, Lighting the Fuse," again exploring the moral questions inherent in Brown's quest, and, ultimately, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions.

"It is shades of gray -- it is not black and white," said director Warner Crocker, who penned the original script. Crocker resurrected the play, which first ran in 2004, as part of the raid's anniversary commemorations. Veteran stage actors John Dow and John Alcott reprise the starring roles of Lee and Brown, and Richmond-based actor Stephen Seals stars as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The infamous raid continues to spark moral, religious and historical debate even more than a century later, Crocker explained.

"As a country and as a society and as human beings who populate that, I really think we are afraid to look at the John Brown that is probably inside of all of us," Crocker said.

Drawing heavily from recorded writing and public speaking of both Lee and Brown, the script follows the men up to the raid in 1859, peaking with a scene where the two men finally come face-to-face.

The pivotal scene is one of only three that consist of wholly fictionalized dialogue, Crocker said, and tends to be a definitive moment for the audience.

"To me it is a fascinating intersection in history," Crocker said. "And also in terms of two men who had great impact in and of their time but also carrying forward for many years after the Civil War."

Brown is initially portrayed as history has come to know him -- an impassioned man of action driven by what he believes to be God's mission -- and evolves from there, Warner said. Lee is introduced as a colonel -- not yet the general of the Confederate forces -- who is also coping with family problems and financial woes and wrestling with his own ethical qualms. By the end of the play, Lee makes the fateful decision to refuse to take command of the Union Army.

"You have these men -- both who have a profound sense of faith and a profound sense of God," Crocker said.

"One of the things the play questions is how easy it is for us to bring God in our side as an ally for a cause."

The nine-member cast plays a total of 120 characters and the actors use fast, on-stage costume changes and subtle differences in mannerisms and voice to transition between roles. The two-act play also has a multimedia aspect, using slides with images, dates, times and locations to guide the audience through the plot's chronology and background.

"The piece moves very quickly -- the way we tell the story is not only very informative but also entertaining," Crocker said.

With music by Wayside Theatre's composer Steve Przybylski, the production contains what Crocker describes as "Brechtian moments" -- where the characters break into song to illustrate a scene.

"The experience we had the first go round is that audiences really got caught up in the journey of the story," Crocker said.

For Dow and Alcott, the chance to play legendary men in an area where the audience is more likely to be intimately familiar with the personalities is both a challenge and an awesome responsibility.

"There is an immediacy about it. People know these characters. I find that fun," Alcott said.

Alcott, in his second turn as Brown, said the character has a depth that history often overlooks, and the play can change a person's preconceived perception of Brown.

"Warner has given John Brown some very clear and persuasive arguments, to make the audience think twice, he has put the intellect behind this so-called madman in history," Alcott said.

Dow, who has played Lee in different dramatic productions, said the real-life geographic proximity of the script's actions gives people another chance to learn Brown's story. Dow encourages audience members to visit the actual location of Brown's raid either before or after viewing the play.

"Go to Harpers Ferry and see the buildings, see the town, see where it took place," Dow said.

"Robert E. Lee and John Brown, Lighting the Fuse" starts at Wayside Theatre in Middletown on Aug. 29, with performances at 2:30 and 8 p.m., with an official opening night on Aug. 30 at 6:30 p.m. The play will run through Sept. 26. Regularly scheduled performances are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., and Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25-$30 for adults and $10 for children. A discussion with the audience is scheduled for the Sept. 3 showing, and a discussion and book signing with Robert J. O'Conner, author of "The Perfect Steel Trap Harpers Ferry 1859," is scheduled for the Sept. 10 performance.

For more information, contact the Wayside Theatre box office at 869-1776.

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