Hanging with Mr. Vesey
This original two-man play is worthy but dull

At the end of Insurrection, central character Denmark Vesey is left in a kind of limbo, trapped between heaven and hell. Audiences will feel the same sitting through 80 turgid minutes of exposition courtesy of Charleston Stage director Julian Wiles.

As he wrote this one-act, two-person play, Wiles became fascinated by the controversy surrounding Vesey’s trial and execution. Vesey was a freedman in 1820s Charleston, accused of plotting a revolt against the white men, women, and children. He never pled guilty, and the evidence against him was far from concrete. Whether he was a freedom fighter or a black patsy, he was hanged on a clammy July dawn.

Vesey’s story has all the hallmarks of a great play. He’s a man with strong beliefs, but still has a mysterious air about him — no one knows what he looked like. His alleged fellow revolutionaries include Gullah Jack, a man with mystical powers said to have made good luck charms for the plotters. His ex-owner was another passionate man: slave captain Joseph Vesey, who accompanied Denmark to the scaffold. A paranoia akin to the Cold War’s red scares swept Charleston, leading to 35 executions in the space of five weeks.

Wiles’ setting also has a potential for atmosphere and tension — the workhouse where slaves were taken to be chained and whipped, the walls packed with sand to muffle their screams. The play starts during the lead-up to Denmark Vesey’s trial, the biased verdict looming as prominently as the nooses suspended over his head throughout the story.

There are themes that can’t fail to resonate with modern audiences. The workhouse could be equated with Guantanamo, as the alleged terrorist prisoners are tortured for information. Witch trials are held behind closed doors. Conspiracies abound until scapegoats are dealt with. Weapons of mass destruction (poison for the local water supply) are used as an excuse to crack down on itinerants, although those weapons are never found.

All this potential’s wasted. Vesey’s intriguing cohorts are referred to, but never used to good dramatic effect. Joseph Vesey is stuck on the sidelines, forbidden to enter the trial room. Stefanie Christensen’s set looks good, but isn’t very functional; the actors can stand, sit down, or lean against a barrel, and that’s about it. There’s no tension in the lead-up to the verdict because the actors are so busy dumping information on each other and the audience.

Henry Clay Middleton (as Denmark) and Jimmy Hager (Joseph) are both skilled, veteran actors, but this isn’t their best work. At times they seem a tad stilted, and Middleton’s performance is one-note for the first half of the play. Hager’s mannered expressions and movements quickly become predictable, as he puts his hands in his pockets, then on his lapels, then back in his pockets again.

It’s the script that really makes them struggle, though. The dramatic potential of the relationship between the two Veseys isn’t used to full effect. They’re so busy explaining the plot to each other and talking about their backgrounds that there’s little time for anything else. Fifty minutes in, Denmark Vesey is still reminiscing about his life. Seventy minutes in, Joseph Vesey stops the action again for another verbal flashback. Switches from narration to reported speech back to first person also quash the tension; as a result, the audience is never fully engaged in events.

There are attempts to build to a climax. The actors get hot under the collar and raise their voices as Denmark adamantly refuses to testify. Any tension built up by the yelling is soon broken by readings from the court records and more bloody flashbacks. The story needs to be moving forward, not backward, at this point.

While 80 minutes is a short running time for a Charleston Stage production, the play still feels drawn out. A sharper pace and a stronger sense of momentum towards the outcome of the trial would really help. A clarification of the relationship between the two protagonists early on in the show would be possible if they weren’t so occupied with exposition. Admittedly some of the information is necessary, but there’s so much of it that it’s difficult to discern how the witch trials began. The audience shouldn’t have to refer to program notes or a timeline to confirm why events have happened.

This is the first Charleston Stage production to use the American Theater, which will become a regular venue when its home, the Dock Street Theatre, gets a two-year extreme makeover, set to begin soon. Wiles plans to run small-scale, off-Broadway style plays on King Street. If they’re all like Insurrection, he’s in trouble. It’s too intimate for the stadium seating, yet the acting’s too broad for a tighter space. The actors do their best to make this beast work, and it’s a great lecture for history hounds. If that’s not your bag, steer clear.

Denmark Vesey: Insurrection • Piccolo Spoleto Theatre Series • (1 hour 20 mins) • $15-$25 • May 27, June 2 and 9 at 6 p.m.; May 29-31, June 1, June 5-8 at 7 p.m.; June 2 and 9 at 9 p.m. • American Theatre, 446 King St. • 554-6060