The first thing the audience sees on entering Howard Community College's Studio Theatre for Rep Stage's production of Intelligence is a curtain.
Curtains are unusual in contemporary theater, but this one has a purpose. It reminds the audience of the secrecy that conceals the work of intelligence operations.
The curtain opens to reveal a book-lined office in a fine old house. Amid the room's dark paneling, bay window and gracefully arched doorway, a computer and a telephone scrambler with blinking red and yellow lights are a jarring presence.
The office's occupant, John Stella, is a sixtysomething, gray-haired man. The meaning of all the cryptic phone calls he makes and receives isn't clear to the audience, but he appears to be the president's security adviser.
Eventually one thing emerges: There's an election coming up in a Latin American country, and the United States is meddling in it.
Stella has contracted to write an autobiography, and he hasn't delivered. His publisher has sent Bevan Daniel to serve as ghost writer.
Daniel, scruffy and disrespectful, is not impressed by Stella. His late father, whom he hated, had also been a powerful government official.
Daniel has ideals and ethics. So does Stella, he discovers, but they are totally opposed to his. The clash of their mutually exclusive philosophies forms the basis of the action.
The play is not so much about intelligence as about power - understandably, since the purpose of gathering intelligence is to achieve power.
Daniel considers himself free. He has rebelled against power and the worship of it.
Stella tells him money is freedom. He was the son of an Italian laborer. He became a lawyer, not so much to practice law as to make money. He went into investment, then into government.
How, he asks Daniel, can a poor man like him call himself free? Daniel replies that he has the power to refuse any writing job he doesn't like - even Stella's book. And he does.
Suddenly the Latin American election demands all of Stella's attention. The U.S. is backing the current military government, but an expatriate writer and political leader, Jesus Victor Redondo, is on his way home. Stella fears Redondo will cause unrest, arouse the people, maybe even upset the election results.
Daniel admires Redondo as a writer and leader. To Stella he is a leftist troublemaker. He sets up a covert scheme to have Redondo diverted en route if possible, killed if not.
In Act II, Intelligence changes from a philosophical dialogue to a melodrama. What had been a matter of national security to Stella suddenly becomes intensely personal.
His stockbroker son, Richie, arrives unexpectedly. Richie has stolen money from clients and needs his father's help. His salvation is tied to bonds issued by the Latin American country Stella is monitoring. If the bonds are to keep their value, the military government must win the election. Richie needs assurance of that immediately.
The play's climax presents the audience with an irony of power. Killing Redondo? That doesn't bother Stella. But telling his son the certain result of the election before it happened - that would mean violating his security oath and breaking the law. That is what Stella agonizes over.
According to the program, Kenneth M. Cameron wrote Intelligence in 1983. He had to wait 25 years for this world premiere production, but he could not have had a better one. Walt Witcover's understanding direction keeps the audience's interest and emotions firmly engaged.
Leo Erickson is John Stella to the life - testy, superior, self-satisfied, secure in his power, and starved for human contact. As his wife Marie, Prudence Barry gives a striking portrayal of a woman in the grip of severe dementia.
Ben Kingsland and Karl Kippola give convincing portrayals of, respectively, the shrewd, idealistic Daniel and the weak and unlikable Richie.
Christine Demuth and Elliot Dash are effective as Stella's security agents, Shelly and Martin. Robotic and brusque of speech when on duty, they reveal engaging personalities in their relaxed moments.
Rep Stage presents Intelligence through Nov. 9 in Studio Theatre, Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. A discussion will be held after the Oct. 24 performance. Reservations: 410-772-4900, or www.repstage.org.