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This review by Anne Rivera was prepared for the August 11, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘The Man Who Bought a Country’

Joe Doyle, author of "The Man Who Bought a Country," says he was apprehensive when the Morrisville 200 Committee – local residents and civic leaders – first approached him to write a show about Robert Morris (1734-1806), to celebrate the 200th anniversary of that town just across the Delaware River from Trenton.

His "epic musical" is now on the outdoor stage in Morrisville’s Williamson Park on Thursday through Sunday evenings. Doyle and his wife, Cheryl – who directs the play – founded the Actors’ NET (Non-Equity Theater) of Bucks County eight years ago. Doyle had written several short plays, as well as the musical "Dreamers," but he wasn’t sure about tackling Morris.

"All I knew was what is commonly known – that Morris had been the financier of the American Revolution," he explains in the playbill. "Sounded boring to me, but I figured at least a small pageant of some sort could be written."

To his surprise, the more he researched Morris’ life and career – locating out-of-print biographies and little-known historical facts through the Internet – the more intrigued he became. Morris, he discovered, was a man whose life resonated with drama.

An intimate of George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and other founders of the nation, Morris was at one time the richest man in America. Nevertheless, he spent the last years of his life in severely reduced circumstances, even serving time in a debtors’ prison in Philadelphia.

The patriot – and Morrisville namesake – who raised money so that Washington could clothe, feed, and pay his army, was a complicated individual. There is no question that he dipped into his own pockets to aid the Revolution. And contemporaries accused him of profiteering from the import of guns and ammunition.

He was slow to sign the Declaration of Independence because he believed that to sever ties with England would be bad for his shipping business. In later years, he used funds amassed from the business to buy more than six million acres of land throughout the Union – "I see profit before it occurs" – but later defaulted on mortgage and tax payments.

Some of the best scenes in Doyle’s "epic" are those in which Morris (played by Steve Lobis) argues against the Declaration of Independence or defends his financial dealings, by inviting a Congressional audit of his books.

The events of Morris’ life, Doyle believes, "demand an epic and thorough telling." As a result, he has created an extremely lengthy production. Total running time for the two-act play is almost three hours, including a 15-minute intermission. "As in all first productions, it takes a while to get a feel for what you have," Doyle observes, noting that "about 15 minutes" of the dialogue could be trimmed.

Some judicious editing would certainly sharpen the play’s focus. For example, there is a scene in which a feisty John Adams (played by Doyle), Benjamin Franklin (played by Philadelphia’s Franklin impersonator Dean Bennett) and Morris debate the merits of abolition. It is an interesting discussion, but a digression.

The "epic" deals not only with the financial and political fortunes of its hero, it is also the love story of Morris and Mary, his wife (played by Jenn Bryant Torres). Mary, or "Molly." White was 19 years old when she married Morris, then 35. Mary never lost faith in her husband and supported him through every tribulation.

"When he was in debtors’ prison, she visited every day, even though yellow fever was raging in the prison and the city of Philadelphia. Her devotion is part of the historical record," Doyle says.

A moving scene occurs in the prison when Morris’ daughter Maria (played by Bryn Taylor) and Mary are visiting. Mary says she wants to speak to Morris alone. "Do you want a divorce?" Morris demands abruptly. Molly’s response includes the lyrical musical number "Love for a Lifetime."

Doyle does not view Morris as a tragic figure. "He never lost faith in America. He always thought he could make a comeback. He remained an optimist until his death." (On his deathbed, in the penultimate scene in the play, Morris proposes to Mary that he open an antique shop!)

It took Doyle a year to write "The Man Who Bought a County," and he decided very early that it should be a musical. Lyrics and melody were composed simultaneously – by ear – on his guitar. Once the melodies were set, he took them to his arranger, Morrisville resident Jim Barto.

A former instructor of film composition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Barto produced a computer-generated score with full instrumentation on period instruments. He also cut CDs for individual actors so they could time their dialogue to the music. His wife, Susan Ferrara Barto, a concert pianist, is the musical director.

The lyrics are set to melodies that range from a "Yankee Doodle" adaptation to original ballads and rousing choruses. They are by turns, romantic, comic or patriotic. The cast, drawn from the Actors’ NET roster of performers, includes a remarkable number of actors with fine singing voices. Notable are Lobis and Torres, whose soaring soprano is extraordinary.

In addition to the actors mentioned, a number of others turn in outstanding performances. They include Tom Orr (playing George Washington); David Swartz, (playing Robert Morris Sr.); Michael Ashby (playing Thomas Willing, Morris’ business partner); and George Reilly (playing the Marquis de La Fayette).

Dale Simon’s simple set design – a reversible backdrop against which the entire action takes place – is effective; and the colonial costumes – most purchased on E-bay or culled from the Actors’ NET collection – seem authentic.

Doyle hopes that "The Man Who Bought a Country," an enormous undertaking for any community theater, will see exposure beyond Morrisville. He says that Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris University has expressed an interest in viewing the drama, as has the American Historical Theater in Philadelphia. "It is important to let audiences know that Morris was a contemporary of giants," he explains.

– Anne Rivera

The Man Who Bought a Country, Actors’ NET, Williamson Park, Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, 215-295-3694. $5. Thursday through Sunday, August 12 through 15, 8 p.m.

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