There are a number of surprises in Lewis Schrager's play Levy's Ghost. Chief among them is that the ghost isn't the spirit of protagonist Uriah Phillips Levy, it's the spirit of Thomas Jefferson.
The two men are connected because Levy purchased the third president's home, Monticello, in 1836, when the historic structure was near ruin. But Levy did more than rescue the landmark estate. Though far less well-known than Jefferson, Levy occupies an important place in American history, and Schrager's biographical play fills in this gap in most textbooks.
One of the cleverest and most enjoyable aspects of director Harriet Lynn's production is that it's staged on the deck of the Constellation. The setting is appropriate because Levy was a career naval officer - a man who fought anti-Semitism to become the first Jew to achieve high rank in the Navy. On the Constellation, actors make their entrances from the gangway or below deck, and supporting cast members dressed as sailors move props and scenery.
The action takes place in 1857. Forcibly retired, 65-year-old Levy - portrayed with unwavering intensity by a too-youthful Tony Colavito - is laboring over the speech he will deliver before the Naval Board of Inquiry in Washington, requesting that he be given command of a ship.
His efforts are aided by the appearance of Jefferson's ghost, winningly depicted by Tim King as a spirit bemused by developments in the three decades since his death. The ghost is a handy device, allowing Levy to launch into exposition explaining who he is, what he's up to and why.
The dialogue between these two is frequently meaty, but it's not especially dramatic. For drama, Schrager inserts flashbacks showing events such as the young Levy (Tim Grieb) reluctantly participating in a fatal duel or trying to stop a superior officer from flogging a sailor (Levy tells us that helping abolish this practice was his proudest accomplishment).
Additional drama is provided by the interaction between Levy and a slave named Amanda, movingly played by Claire Dorsey, who also portrays Sally Hemings in a brief flashback. Amanda's devotion to Levy is clear when she expresses concern for her master's sanity after she overhears him talking to Jefferson's ghost, whom she is unable to see. Dorsey's Amanda also delivers the play's most impassioned speech when, encouraged to speak her heart, she castigates Levy for not freeing his slaves.
Schrager peppers the script with timely comments on such subjects as "the obscene worship of the famous" and the threats to individual liberty posed by everything from war to the blurring of the lines separating church and state. (Jefferson's advocacy for this separation was the core of Levy's admiration for him.)
Though Schrager - a physician working in the counterterrorism division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration - took only a small portion of his text verbatim from archival documents, he extrapolated these references from the philosophies of Jefferson and Levy. Together with the performances and the Constellation setting, these prescient remarks give the play a modern resonance that, at its best, lifts the material above the level of a history lesson.
Where: Constellation, Pier 1, 301 E. Pratt St.
When: 6 p.m. Sundays (except July 3), through July 24
Admission: $15 in advance, $17.50 at the door (availability is limited)
Call: 410-539-1797, ext. 422