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Colonial Players’ Sunlight

You’ll welcome the light after two dark hours

Nostalgic for mudslinging yet? If so, you must see Colonial Players’ production of Sunlight, a thoughtful and well-acted tale of academic and family discord over post 9/11 foreign policy.
    In essence, Matthew (Timothy Sayles), a university president, abhors the government’s stance on torture of political prisoners as interpreted and taught by the dean of his law school, Vincent (Jeff Sprague), his protégé and son-in-law. So enraged that Matthew allegedly breaks into Vincent’s office, à la Watergate, committing unspeakable acts of vandalism. Now the campus and family are in turmoil over a seemingly irreparable rift that has adults brawling like schoolboys.
    It’s a bit hard to follow Sharr White’s award-winning play, what with the abrupt drop into profanity-laced shouting matches and vague references to unexplained past events. But if you are attentive and patient, the plot unfolds like a news story.
    When the newspaper hits the stoop, you see the headline: President faces no-confidence vote. Then you unfold it to read a detailed account. Your appetite whetted by the scatological specifics, you turn to the Style section for personal comments from loved ones: Charlotte (Chelsea Langley-Kolbe), who is both Matthew’s daughter and Vincent’s estranged wife, and Maryanne (Millie Ferrara), Matthew’s special assistant. There are also overheard truths direct from the four characters as they tangle onstage, disclosing their real actions and motives.
    Then you realize there is more to the sensational story — and its ­participants — than meets the eye.
    Matthew calls himself “the last progressive American idealist.” Yet this liberal lion, like Nixon, McCarthy and Hoover, keeps disloyalty lists and bullies the faculty. A widower, a dated rebel and aging academic now dependent on Maryanne and Charlotte to fill the void his wife left by dying, he has aged into loneliness and jealousy.
    Maryanne cooks for him, nags and helps him on with his shoes while simultaneously trying to preserve his papers for posterity, “warts and all.” Faced with their probable retirement, she swings from sympathy to anger and efficiency to dereliction, mentally preparing herself for the next step in her disillusioned life. A big part of her current problem, though, is the usurper Charlotte, negotiating a deal for her father with the Board of Regents.
    Charlotte is a “superwoman spoiling for a fight.” Profane and pushy, she’s a frigid dominatrix in pinstripes who feels compelled to side with her father against her estranged husband, that “smug prick.” A thoroughly hateful woman, she gains sympathy late in the play when Vincent discloses how the 9/11 attacks affected her.  
    Vincent, the conservative terrorism and torture expert, comes across as the most sympathetic character. He is doing his sad duty in standing up to his bullying boss, yet he clearly loves his wife and misses his old place in the family. A lawyer playing a lawyer, Sprague is a natural as Vincent.
    This smart production directed by Terry Averill looks just right, from plush presidential home office to wardrobe. But more could have been done technically to ramp up the crisis. The mood is so somber it’s serene, at least when no one is yelling.
    “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” says Vincent, and when the truth comes out at the end of the show, it reveals a roomful of people missing each other.
    Two hours of infighting proved too much for some of the audience on this night, but I found this play to be a worthwhile commentary on “the new, impermanent reality in which we live.”

Playing thru Nov. 17, Th-Sa 8pm, Su 2pm @ Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $20 with discounts; rsvp 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.