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“The Agitators” opens with the eminent civil rights activist Frederick Douglass feverishly playing his violin. It cuts to a bright-eyed, fiery and free-thinking Susan B. Anthony in her late 20s, resplendent in a plaid blouse and yellow skirt. She’s chatting at a picnic with an idealistic, intellectual Douglass, in his early 30s for this scene, dapper in a green vest with ornamental buttons. She calls him “one of my favorite people in Rochester,” where she lives and where the local political crowd regularly gathers at her father’s farm to discuss issues of the day.
The play ends in Rochester, with Anthony visiting Douglass’ grave shortly after his death in 1895.
In between, these two larger-than-life historical figures maintain their friendship while fighting for shared beliefs in voting rights for all and other civil rights struggles of the 19th century.
“The Agitators” delivers some important historical information about how certain U.S. freedoms slowly developed during the course of these two activists’ lifetimes. Mat Smart, a prolific, award-winning playwright, dramatizes a remarkable friendship between two very famous people. Yet, both these things are done in a rather superficial, transparent manner.
Great swaths of exposition about what Susan and Frederick have been up to between their visits to each other are clunkily delivered as casual conversation. There is a running gag about “Are you quoting me to me?” which is really just a way to share their pithy sayings in a laid-back manner. It doesn’t do justice to the quotations or to the depiction of a warm friendship. There’s another running joke about how they pretend to have read each other’s books but haven’t really. These bits seem unconvincing against all the moments when they expound in great detail on each others’ writings and achievements.
Whatever its failings as a piece of writing, the decades-long friendship of two of their era’s best-known abolitionists and crusaders for voting rights is loaded with potential, and when the dialogue isn’t contrived, fact-heavy or over-the-top it can really connect.
For this production of “The Agitators,” the main agitators are the designers, who help provide a consistent tone for the show even when the choppy structure and stilted dialogue challenge such fluidity.
One of the strongest elements of Playhouse on Park’s production of “The Agitators” is the sound design by Jeffrey Salerno. The play opens with an audio montage of violin playing, labored breathing and a barking dog. Throughout the show, there are complex and layered soundscapes where other designers would settle for quick obvious effects.
Similarly, the scenic design by Randall Parsons is a clever arrangement of stars and stripes — as wood flooring, as subtle browns rather than as garish red, white and blue. Like the sound design, the set adds a useful amount of abstraction, bringing a dreamlike fantasy element to the history mix.
Director Kelly O’Donnell, a co-founder of New York’s progressive Flux Theatre Ensemble, complements the non-realistic design elements by keeping the action human and up close. The actors weep and hug and dance. When they squabble, it’s still a dance.
As Anthony, Sam Rosentrater is a no-nonsense feminist who holds her own against the more formal and stately Frederick Douglass, played by Gabriel Lawrence. Both actors bring a great deal of humor to their roles but not at the expense of dignity or drama. They have to act like they’re in their 30s, then their 40s and 50s, right into their late 70s, and some of these scenes are much more convincing than others. Sometimes there are exciting backdrops to their conversations, and sometimes the dialogue has to be the most exciting thing happening. Both Rosentrater and Lawrence were up for the challenge.
In recent seasons, Playhouse on Park has really found its groove with small-cast period dramas that allow for creative mood-setting environments. Script-wise, “The Agitators” may not be on the same level as these other examples, but the playhouse has truly found a niche here: conversational dramas about massive social change and struggles, especially for women and people of color. Next season, it’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.”
“The Agitators” is more heavy-handed than others in this sensitive subgenre, at times cutting a little too close to a junior high school history class video, but it rabble-rouses just fine. You’ll likely leave the theater with a better sense of key shifts in the suffrage and civil rights movements of the mid-1800s and how they related to those of our own time. You’ll also sense the human toil of those who led the fight, and how they survived in part due to the friendships and loyalties they forged.
“The Agitators” runs through June 12 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20-$50, with discounts for students, seniors, military and Let’s Go Arts! members. playhouseonpark.org.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.