note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Chuck Galle
Thirst For Freedom by Emory Wilson premiered at Players Ring in Portsmouth New Hampshire this week. The play tells the story of Ona Maria Judge, a "body slave" to Martha Washington, who escaped from the former Presidentıs household in 1796 and made her way to Portsmouth. This actually happened, and as one might imagine the former President was not marvelously supportive of Ona's bid for freedom. Customs Agent Joseph Whipple, the only federal employee in the growing port city, was beseeched to be on the watch for her. Senator John Langdon, an admitted social climber who developed a conscience in the foray of the climb, found himself involved in the affair largely due to his daughterıs unexpected support for the young woman's desire to be free. One of the better dramatic devices in this show is Ona's response to each of several people who ask her why she left such an apparently desirable condition; after all, she had a lovely room of her own on the estate of the American whom most of the world wished to meet and converse with. "I wanted to be free." she simply says. Actress Donna Simpson delivers the line with the puzzled expression that doesn't understand how any one would be so foolish as to ask such a question.
This is a powerful story of a seminal event in the history of Portsmouth and this country. A story so worth being told it is surprising it has waited this long for an airing. I suspect we all know not nearly enough about how slavery supported the early economy of New England. If we are to make much progress in the matter of race relations in this country it would serve us well to learn more about what the real history was. And in the case of this play there are sufficient ironics to make the learning entertaining as well.
Players Ring has undergone a welcome renovation during this summer, securing the seats comfortably, slightly expanding the playing space, and improving the lighting scheme. It has also undergone the loss of it's mentor-founder, Gary Newton, whose memory nonetheless permeates the theater like a Cheshire smile. He steps through the walls and towers up through the roof. At some point it will probably be decided to rename it "Gary Newtonıs Players Ring". It is the perfect setting for a local playwrightıs work, more the especially since much of the action of this play takes place in the immediate neighborhood, albeit two hundred and a few years displaced.
Director MaryAnn Robertson has made fine use of the thrust stage, pulling the audience from one corner, the Customıs Agent office, into the Langdon living room, and then out onto the river bank and then in and out of Ona's room believably and easily with use of only a table, a couple of chairs and a few props. The eye wants for nothing, the mind and the acting supplies all. Tim Robinson and Betsy Stabler have provided a backdrop of colonial buildings that consistently harkens of those earlier times. Costumer Barbara Newton has turned out a series of 18th century characters, and MaryAnn has peopled them out with actors who give the dimensions of human beings; reason, passion, strength, weakness, courage, timidity, heroism and despicableness. As it should be, this is a story of the human spirit.
There is a phenomenon that infects community theater, and unfortunately MaryAnn and the cast have not escaped it. It is the great bugaboo of community theater and there may not be a single or even simple solution. It is the problem that the first three or four shows are actually audience enhanced dress rehearsals. Some actors are still remembering what lines come after the ones they are speaking now, and which passions enflame those lines, what subtext is driving those passions and lines. They have worked long and hard and now there are real paying customers and they are still a little self-conscious, insecure. Lines come slowly. Sometimes form of delivery is still being felt out. And, fortunately there are one or two or three with the experience and skill to lead the performance, to give their fellow actors some real part of themselves out there in their underwear so that they stir the lines that they cue, and push the wooden legged into dance. In this case, Sandi Clark as Dame Sally, Kristen Sergeant as Bets Langdon, and Jonathan Rockwood Hoar who bursts upon the stage like a whirlwind in the second act, do the yeoman's duty in demonstrating passionate acting. Donna Simpson does an heroic job of portraying the freedom thirsting Ona. Other actors find out right on stage before us that they really can act, and rise to their own powers by forgetting they are acting, and that strange thing called ensemble starts to form.
I saw that start happen on the stage of Players Ring last night. It warmed my heart. The recoveries from lost lines, the overcoming stark, gut wrenching panic, the joy as the scene begins to make real sense and this or that actor's part in it takes on meaning at long damn last. By next week, when the extra time for searching out the meanings of lines and for feeling secure on stage has been squeezed out - oh, and the unnecessarily long scene changes are reduced to under ten seconds apiece - this show will positively glisten.