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CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Last week Vermont Senator James M. Jeffords shifted the balance of national political power by leaving the Republican Party which he thought he knew but no longer felt comfortable with. That same week audiences at the Old Castle Theatre in Bennington, Vermont Civil Union, heard one of its characters, a fictional state senator embroiled in a heated battle to legalize same sex marriages, declare his disgust with the Vermont town he represented.
That speech by one of the play's thirty-six characters and the timing of this docu-drama's opening almost smacks of clairvoyance on the part of Eric Peterson, the Old Castle's producing artistic director and this play's author and director. Jeffords' s party switch certainly adds a piquant timeliness to this new play. The issue it dramatizes has been much in the news (national as well as local) for the past year and a half. While the bill passed and has caused several other states to take notice, it remains under assault, making Civil Union a play whose real ending begins with the discussion the author hopes it will generate.
Playwrights have long used the theater as a place for raising important issues. Such plays inevitably risk being labeled old-fashioned agitprop propaganda treatises more suited to the lecture hall than the stage. But, while Mr. Peterson's sympathies are clearly on the side of legitimized unions between homosexual couples, he is skillful enough to keep Civil Union from being a morality play peopled by characters who never rise above being political mouthpieces. His play is indeed polemical, but it's also interestingly structured. The script has much witty dialogue and enough characters who are sufficiently brought to life as real people whose lives happen to be deeply affected by this issue to add up to an entertaining as well as provocative two hours.
By projecting dramatized filmed testimonies at legislative hearings and bits of radio and TV shows on one of three screens (the second screen is used to detail the Kenneth Mooney's spare and effective scenic design, the third screen is mysteriously unused), the larger factual story is smartly intertwined with the personal stories of individual Vermont citizens. The most fully developed of the thirty-six characters effectively puts a human face on the issue, by showing its impact on the relationship of four couples:
Kate (Leah Pike), an elementary school teacher and Robert (Brian Turnbaugh), her commitment-shy boyfriend who initially sees this story mainly as a step into big league journalism . . . Susan (Pamela Blair another school teacher and her partner Melanie (Carol Symes), who must hammer out their differences about adopting a child and going public about their relationship journalism . . . Vernon (Richard Howe) and his partner, Brannon (Mark Irish), who are also caught up in the controversy after the publication of Brannon's letter to the editor of the local paper . . . Paul Blocker (Richard E. Council), a bible-thumping minister whose anti- homosexual stance threatens his church and his marriage to Linda (Daryl Kenny).
The ensemble 's multiple role playing is so seamless that it comes as something of a surprise to see just nine people taking curtain calls. Richard Council, who comes to the Old Castle with very impressive credentials, is the only disappointment as the homophobic minister though part of this may be due to the fact that he seems Mr. Peterson's least successfully realized character. On the other hand, the playwright's triumph in terms of memorable characters is a trio of redneck types or " woodchucks " -- Burt (Willy Jones), Benjy (Mark Irish) and Jack (Richard Howe). Their wide-ranging banter covers everything from Burt's buying a new truck, to past marriages, the polar iceback, and Benjy's brother Ray whose being Gay is brought to this round table as a consequence of the legislative debate. These diner discussions not only add high notes of comic relief but, as one of the legislators who participated in a post-show discussion at the performance I attended observed, are how the real and perceived Vermont life style will ultimately come together.
Jones, Irish and Howe are so drolly authentic as the three "woodchucks", as is Carol Symes as a savvy waitress, that you almost wish Mr. Peterson had built his whole play around them and that diner. But then, maybe he's saving them for another play -- a comic Green Mountain Seinfeld with the set a copy of the 1940's style Blue Benn Diner that's just a few miles away.