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Posted September 3, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Contradiction of convictions explored on stage


From left, Sun King Davis, Ricky Hesson and Stephen Seals perform at Wayside. Courtesy photo

By John Horan Jr. -- jhoran@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, the signal event that hastened the coming of the Civil War, is deftly explored in Wayside Theatre's "Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse."

The play, by Warner Crocker, the theater's artistic director, premiered five years ago but is being remounted at the suggestion of the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor's Bureau as part of the observance of the 150th anniversary of Brown's raid.

The drama features a versatile cast of nine, who play scores of characters, including politicians, who in effective vignettes illustrate the sectional tensions that preceded Brown's mad foray, and the townsfolk unwittingly caught up in history. Projections with text and pictures add context and help propel the story.

The play's focus, naturally, is on Brown, the antislavery fanatic, and Lee, who led the contingent of U.S. forces that crushed the raid. The pair are ably portrayed by John Alcott and John Dow, reprising their roles from the 2004 production.

Although Alcott declaims loudly and mightily, his Brown has touches of pathos, especially as he's forced to ponder the consequences of his zealotry, most notably as he watches life ebb from his wounded son.

Dow, in addition to looking like Lee's clone, embodies his character and mien -- the unpretentious, wise, duty-bound soldier whose loyalty to Virginia transcended his distaste for slavery.

Crocker brings the two principals together, after the commotion of the raid and its suppression, to spar in a low-keyed way about the contradictions of their convictions. The scene is both poignant and absorbing.

Also repeating his role is Stephen Seals as an authoritative Frederick Douglass as well as a member of the ensemble.

Affecting music by Steve Przybylski, sometimes reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim, punctuates the play.

Michael "Jonz" Jones' spare sets have been tastefully complemented by Til Turner. Paul M. Callahan provides often haunting lighting and Tamara M. Carruthers supplies a wealth of evocative costumes.

"Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse" continues through Sept. 26. The box office phone number is 869-1776.

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