Three years ago, Lewis Schrager stood at the grave of Rachel Levy, a Jewish woman buried at Monticello, and was somewhat confused. Schrager, a closet historian, couldn't figure out why Levy and her family were buried at Jefferson's estate. After doing some research, Schrager uncovered the story of the Levy family and became thoroughly enthralled.
"Why is a Jewish woman from 1839 buried a hundred feet or so from the back of Monticello?" Schrager said. "This was certainly a huge mystery to me."
The result of his curiosity is Levy's Ghost, an original play he has written about the lifetime of the United States' first Jewish naval hero, Commodore Uriah Levy. Levy's Ghost premieres on the deck of the Constellation in the Inner Harbor on Sunday.
As it turns out, history glossed right over Levy's triumphs in and out of the Navy, from his successful struggle to end the flogging of Navy personnel to his acquisition and restoration of Jefferson's Monticello estate. The two-act play takes place in 1857, on the weekend before Levy went to Washington to defend his position as full captain in front of a Naval Board of Inquiry. It addresses the Navy's apprehension to grant Levy a ship - they made him full captain, but for 11 years never put him in charge of a vessel - because of his religion.
In the past three years, Schrager has seen his idea slowly form into something more concrete, from the initial research he conducted to writing the first draft of the script in late 2002 to a staged reading in January 2004. Performing on the deck of a ship, while exciting for Schrager, also posed a set of problems he wasn't expecting.
"I was very naively overwhelmed, because it was my first production," he said. "It was a very heady thing to think that something you write is going to see the light of day. Of course, what I didn't realize were the technical difficulties of staging a two-act play on the deck of a ship."
Onboard a ship, there are no wings or curtain. Instead, people are coming up and down stairs and coming on and off the gangplank. That's where Harriet Lynn, producer and director of Heritage Theatre Artists' Consortium, lent a hand. She called the ship the ninth character (there were originally only eight scripted characters) and helped use the Constellation to the advantage of the play. The cast has been practicing on and off the ship about three days a week since late April, which has been a treat, Schrager said.
"It's been an absolute dream to be aboard the ship watching these rehearsals as evening falls over the harbor and the breeze kicks up from the Bay and the lights come on around you," said Schrager, a medical offical for the Food and Drug Administration. "It's just a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Three of the Constellation's guides expressed interest in participating in the play, and Schrager was more than happy to oblige. The cast's collective age ranges from the 60s down to the early 20s, and they have formed a tight unit over the course of rehearsal.
"I'm very excited," Schrager said. "It's always a mix of excitement, anxiety and I guess sort of this very, very intense curiosity. Here it's my first chance to put something onstage, and I'm just really interested to see how people respond to it. One way or the other, I'm gonna learn from it, and I just hope we put on a good show."
"Levy's Ghost" premieres at 6 p.m. Sunday aboard the Constellation in the Inner Harbor. Subsequent performances will be at 6 p.m. on June 19 and June 26 and July 10 and July 17. Ticket prices vary; call 410-539-1797 ext. 422 for reservations or visit www.constel lation.org.
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