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A Must-See Play on R.E. Lee, John Brown

Robert E. Lee and John Brown possess the stage and the audience at Wayside Theatre, Middletown, Va., in an absolute must-see play. It is drama at its best and comes on the 150th anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid, offering an opportunity to reconsider what happened there.

"Robert E. Lee and John Brown: Lighting the Fuse," written by the theater's artistic director Warner Crocker, illuminates the contradictions and complexity of the history we all share and the characters we think we know. See this play before its closes Sept. 26.

For students of the Civil War or those going along to keep someone company, this play is equally thought-provoking. There is Brown, the anti-slavery zealot with the right cause but the wrong solution, and Lee, the thoughtful, Southern gentleman and career military man who knows slavery is wrong but still owns slaves.

The play portrays both men in the years preceding the climatic raid at Harpers Ferry -- Brown in Kansas and Lee as the loyal military officer -- and then brings them together in a meeting that never happened after Brown was captured. Crocker admits to considerable artistic license at this point but contends the play is based on years of solid research. The conversation between the two men is reasonable considering all he knows about them.

The casting is extraordinary. Brown, who stood 6-feet plus, is portrayed by veteran Equity actor John Alcott, who at 6 feet, 5 inches, fills the stage with his physical and emotional presence. John Dow, another Equity actor with much theatrical experience, very closely resembles Lee as he looked in his war years.

The nine-member cast plays a total of 120 characters by quick, on-stage costume changes or a subtle change in speech and mannerisms. A slide show, playing in the background, carries the story forward with portraits, headlines and dates.

I live a few miles from Middletown, about 80 miles west of Washington, in an area that is still considered country. The most expensive ticket in the 180-seat theater is $30, a bargain by Washington standards. But the actors and the play are as good as you will see in many theaters in the Washington area.

By Linda Wheeler  |  September 19, 2009; 7:49 PM ET
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