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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
9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.$28 to $52. Performances
to Sunday, October 5.
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