By William Wolf

COURIERS AND CONTRABANDS  Send This Review to a Friend

Sometimes big plays emerge on small stages. A case in point is playwright Victor Lesniewski’s penetrating, suspenseful spy drama “Couriers and Contrabands,” probing conflicted loyalties and views on slavery during America’s Civil War. Much happens in the play, presented by The Time Line Projects, Liz Olson producer, all unfolding on the compact stage at the TBG Theatre. The flexible scenery designed by David Esler is swiftly shifted to represent two neighboring houses in 1864 on the southern outskirts of Petersburg, Virginia. Seven effective cast members provide the fireworks under the savvy direction of Kareem Fahmy.

A nest of spies is at work selling out the Southern side as a result of ideological differences. Far be it for me to divulge which participants are doing what. The play cleverly builds suspense as various actions and perpetrators are made clear and the polemics are explained in convincing dramatic outbursts. I wouldn’t want to provide spoilers.

Although Lesniewski’s take is fictional, there is inspiration in the real espionage acts that were unfolding at the time. The playwright has created characters accordingly and we get to know different sides of them.

Michael Schantz plays Thomas Montgomery, a Confederate operative, and Eric T. Miller plays James Hanson, his long-time friend and another Confederate operative. Both men give very strong, riveting performances. Jeremy Beck is intriguing as George Dunhaven, an outwardly unassuming corporal in the Confederate army who runs missions for Montgomery to provide important information in the intelligence competition. All is being played out against the background of an impending siege of Petersburg.

Montgomery’s sister, Lottie Saunders, emotionally and proudly portrayed by Heather Hollingsworth, is trying to erase danger from her mind while her husband is at war. She does not want to abandon the family home if it becomes necessary to flee. Helen Cespedes is intriguing as Heather’s pretty neighbor, Mary Gardner, whom Corporal Dunhaven finds attractive and there are amusing courtship vibes between them.

An especially meaningful performance is given by Krystel Lucas in the important role of Nancy, Lottie’s African-American housemaid. She stands around dutifully but quietly listening and observing as the men and women talk about the war and problems as if she were not there. It is a dramatic illustration of the racism that led whites to regard blacks as non-persons. Lucas gets the perfect ambiance to fit in overtly, but her expressions show us that Nancy possesses underlying substance and intelligence. When Nancy gets a chance to emote as the plot thickens, Lucas further demonstrates what a fine actress she is and how much effective stage presence she has. She also has a strong singing voice, evidenced when at one point she breaks into song.

Another key cast member is Luke Forbes as Willie, Mary’s African-American servant. We learn more about him as events unfold.

Admittedly, there are some plot contrivances, but the impressive acting and staging don’t allow us to think about them, for one is caught up in the action. It is as if we are there in those two homes and closely acquainted with the characters. Sarafina Bush does a good job with the period costume design and the sound effects (sound design and original musical by Mark Van Hare) remind us that there are armies battling nearby. At the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street. Reviewed September 9, 2015.


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