If You Ask Me

History Comes Alive in Playhouse On Park’s “Agitators”

By Tom Holehan
Connecticut Critics Circle

The decades-long friendship between suffragette Susan B. Anthony and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass is the core of Mat Smart’s canny and engaging two-character play, ”The Agitators”, currently onstage at Playhouse on Park(POP). The West Hartford theatre should be applauded for offering this timely play, which resonates significantly in these turbulent years.

Covering nearly 50 years, 1849 to 1895, “The Agitators” uses history as a guide as it imagines conversations and situations between two great American legends. Initially a friend of Susan’s father, Frederick eventually meets the women’s rights activist while in her early 20s. A spinster with no desire for marriage or children, Susan was way ahead of her time and this sparks interest from Frederick. It also sparks conflict as each leader has their own agenda regarding civil rights for both women and African-Americans.

Obviously, chemistry is key in productions with only two actors. Luckily, under Kelly O’Donnell’s thoughtful and sensitive direction, both Gabriel Lawrence and Sam Rosentrater complement each other beautifully. There’s an early scene where Frederick sees his wife in the distance and calls to her. His love for this woman is palpable in his eyes and smile, all captured perfectly by Lawrence in only seconds of stage time. In confrontations with Susan, the actor’s passionate and fiery debate are matched equally by his co-star. Rosentrater’s spirit and backbone rarely wavers defining this early feminist’s desire and fierce appetite for change.

Randall Parsons’ scenic design is modest but effective though I wasn’t sure there was enough difference between the Douglass and Anthony homes to delineate between them. Effective sound (Jeffrey Salerno) and precise lighting (Johann Fitzpatrick) add to the drama. The period costumes by Vilinda McGregor are also well appointed for each actor but an ill-advised wig for Mr. Lawrence distracts at times from his performances. The actor is certainly good enough not to need such flourishes.

I’d like to see the play trimmed to one act (running time is currently well over two hours) and I wish there was less tell and more show especially in depicting the obvious pitfalls both leaders no doubt endured on their individual journeys. Nevertheless, I am willing to bet there are many audiences out there who had no idea about this long and important friendship between two American icons. Ultimately, this riveting history seems absolutely alive in the telling at POP.

“The Agitators” continues at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road in West Hartford through June 12. For further information, call the box office at: 860.523.5900 X 10 or visit: www.playhouseonpark.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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