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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 17, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Wilderness of Mirrors’

We are poor little lambs who have lost their way, ba,

ba, ba." The sound of this childlike rhyme, sung in almost celestial

harmony by the Wiffenpoofs, Yale’s a cappella choir, bookends Charles

Evered’s dramatic new history play about the birth of the CIA, "Wilderness

of Mirrors." As the play unfolds, the "lost sheep" analogy

only becomes more apt. And Evered’s spine-chilling spy story draws

us in like the best of bedtime page-turners.

In a world premiere production directed by David Saint, "Wilderness

of Mirrors" opened the George Street Playhouse 30th anniversary

season on September 12. Performances continue to Sunday, October 5.

Set primarily at Yale in the 1940s, when students were recruited to

form the new secret government agency we know today as the CIA, Evered’s

story is based on two real-life characters — Norman Holmes Pearson

and James Angleton. Both men wielded the power of life and death over

perceived friends and enemies for decades.

Michael Countryman plays Robert Conlan, an English scholar turned

spymaster who is the central player in the tragedy. Alex Draper plays

the Yale student James Singleton whose life becomes engulfed by Conlan’s

charisma and the shadow world of 20th century political intervention.

Conlan is also the man who recounts the story in flashback, from a

vantage point in 1968, spurred on by the questions of Barnard journalism

student, Erin. This theatrical device works well to carry us from

the Vietnam era back to World War II and the Cold War. Dressed in

embroidered blouse, bandana, short skirt, and boots, Monica West’s

attractive and attentive Erin is a huge asset to the play’s "guys

in suits." Hers is also the only character who does not have to

age 25 years over the course of the story, a feat that the ensemble

pulls off convincingly, seemingly without effort.

In recent seasons, George Street has consistently offered strong acting

and strong production values. Yet "Wilderness of Mirrors"

makes a slightly unusual — and timely entry — in that it tells

us about aspects of our world we’d rather not know. And there’s little

solace to be taken from the life events and outcomes we must witness.

Drawing from source material that presumably fills many big history

books, Evered has bravely taken up the challenge to present his Cold

War story as a coherent, two-act drama. On the whole, his economy

of means is theatrically effective and intellectually rewarding. Dramatically,

he has us completely invested in the young James’s success or failure.

Yet whether or not the play can look forward to a long, literary life

may depend on the sentimentality of its central plot device. Like

many an author before him, Evered would have us believe that two lives

are utterly derailed by a missed lovers’ rendezvous.

Part of the strength of Saint’s production is the uniform excellence

of his cast, not only in its principal players, but in all the supporting

roles. Leslie Lyles plays Susan Conlan, from her days as an attentive

Yale faculty wife to her subsequent divorce and decline. Welker White,

as James’s lover Christina, is equally effective in her role as an

iconic, yet nonconformist 1940s virgin as she is in her dark later

years. Yuval Boim and Martin Friedrichs complete that cast with roles

that also take them from well-scrubbed Yalies to their dark futures.

James Youmans’ minimal set is a marvel of a fusty academic library

that convinces us of its realism in a succession of settings, even

opening up to embrace a star-filled night sky. Costumes by David Murin

are also effective, as is David Lander’s lighting and Christopher

Bailey’s sound design.

Like most of his audience, almost everything I know about the world

of spying I learned from fiction which I never took too seriously.

Thanks to the evocative powers of Evered and Saint, this play sent

me almost screaming back to my history books.

— Nicole Plett

Wilderness of Mirrors, George Street Playhouse,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.$28 to $52. Performances

to Sunday, October 5.


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