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Colonial Players offers thought-provoking production of 'Sunlight'

Play deals with complex issues of family dynamics and torture in post-9/11 atmosphere

By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun

5:23 PM EST, November 8, 2012

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Colonial Players' second offering of its 64th season is Sharr White's 2009 award-winning play "Sunlight." This enduring all-volunteer company's bold choice of a topical drama examining controversial issues is laudable, although its timing, when many people are experiencing presidential election overload, seems awkward.

"Sunlight" illuminates the evolution of one family after 9/11. The father, Matthew Gibbon, is an eccentric, aging liberal lion who for 30 years has served as president of a midsize college. His daughter, Charlotte, is a razor-sharp attorney grappling with the disintegration of her marriage and of her father's career. Her husband, Vincent Kreiger, now dean of the college's law school, is a neoconservative who framed legal opinions to authorize "enhanced interrogation" techniques after 9/11. Vincent was once his father-in-law's respected protege.

Colonial Players' choice of such a controversial and perplexing drama signals healthy growth that is celebrated by its president, Terry Averill, who also welcomed the challenge of directing this production. Drawn by White's characters, described by Averill as "people I know and love, members of my family, my friends, myself," Averill largely succeeds in making their actions intelligible to the audience.

He artfully guides his four-member cast through a baffling maze of shifting power struggles and the clash of ideologies that came into focus after 9/11 and here are dramatized in a sequence of emotionally charged scenes occurring in the real time of the play's two hours.

Set designer Edd Miller must have gone well beyond CP's abundant collection of props to find furnishings elegant enough for his office creation. Matthew Gibbon's presidential office features mahogany tables, Oriental rugs, brass column lamps topped by pleated fabric shades, and a stunning tufted-leather sofa in the sitting room that even includes a cozy, glowing fire. This room is separate from a working office complete with a capacious executive desk, assorted side chairs and, somewhat incongruously, a paper shredder, which is used only once, to dispose of a single presumably incriminating document.

Members of the cast bring their best efforts to the project, despite being required to portray playwright White's often self-engrossed characters, who rail against each other and themselves.

In her CP debut, Chelsea Langley-Kolbe is cast in perhaps the play's most difficult role as Charlotte, caught between anger and indifference in her relationship with her estranged husband, and driven to protect her father by negotiating a graceful retirement exit for him. Langley-Kolbe projects a tough, skilled attorney who is so infuriated by her father's antics that she curses at college faculty and reporters, and snaps at Maryanne, his assistant of 30 years. Langley-Kolbe subtly conveys the lingering pain that arises from Charlotte's terrible experience on 9/11.

Veteran actor Timothy Sayles plays Matthew Gibbons, another difficult role in that this character lacks judgment, public relations skills and restraint, rendering him seemingly incapable of building a respected college from what was initially little more than a correspondence school. Sayles' Matthew desperately rages at his enemies, despising what his son-in-law has become so much that he vandalizes Vincent's office and his records, and seems proud of having committed this crime.

Sayles tragically conveys Matthew's abhorrence of the torture that leads to the death of a 15-year-old prisoner. Matthew's honorable reaction somehow lacks heroic conviction, while his disgust at Vincent's justification of this act lacks fire, a signal that this former lion has lost his core.

Local favorite Jeff Sprague plays Vincent, who seems unconcerned with ethics, determinedly justifying the case for torture. Confused by his wife and obsessed with obtaining her approval, Sprague's Vincent is a complex character who advocates "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a means of obtaining life-saving information. Often seeming paranoid in his continuing defense, Sprague's Vincent spars with Matthew, conveying his underlying yearning to return to his former role as his father-in-law's protege.

Matthew's loyal assistant, Maryanne, is beautifully captured by Millie Ferrara, who portrays her retained affection and respect for who the college president once was. She continues to defend him and attend to his needs while grieving for the once-laudable career that Matthew has squandered. Skilled ensemble player Ferrara is convincing in her complex relationship with Charlotte, arguing with her to protect Matthew's legacy while communicating underlying sympathy for his daughter. Maryanne, often called Midge, is the one character capable of expressing warm human emotion.

Despite my inability to muster much sympathy for most of the characters in White's drama, I found their depictions to be honest reflections of human diversity in a contemporary society where most of us are flawed. Aging, faltering tyrants can espouse ethical causes while younger, ambitious men can be convinced of moral correctness in their cause.

CP's production of "Sunlight" deserves to be seen by thoughtful audiences who appreciate contemporary drama.

"Sunlight" concludes its run this Thursday through Saturday at the Colonial Players' stage, 108 East St. in Annapolis. Tickets and information: 410-288-7373.