|Thursday, January 18, 2001
Letters' a haunting,
Provocative play kicks off this year's Norfolk Southern
of New Works at Mill Mountain
By BETH JONES
The Roanoke Times
There should be some sort of an award for a writer who
County moonshine, the ill-fated Yugo and inventor Nikola Tesla all in
Yet more impressive is the way playwright Jeffrey Stanley
takes an international
conflict that still confounds many Americans and makes it feel close to
In an inventive and highly effective approach, the Roanoke
New York writer uses Tesla as a starting point to examine war-torn
The people of this place, Stanley shows, are no more bloodthirsty than
any other group. The destroyed neighborhoods, the abandoned land mines
and the shattered lives could have just as easily been on American
Stanley's play, "Tesla's Letters," launches this year's
Festival of New Works at Mill Mountain Theatre. The festival continues
through Jan. 28 with further performances of "Tesla's Letters,"
of "War Story" and "How I Came to Be Buffalo Bill" and a staged reading
of "Short-Haired Grace."
In "Tesla's Letters," Daisy Archer (Janelle Schremmer), an
graduate student, faces the danger of flying to Serbia in 1997 in order
to do research in the Tesla museum. Daisy is particularly interested in
learning about whether there is any truth to the persistent rumor that
Tesla designed a weapon of mass destruction before his death in
When Daisy reaches the museum, she's surprised and angered
that the somewhat shifty administrator has been counting on making a
with her. In exchange for admission to Tesla's papers, Dragan (Richard
Elmore) tells Daisy she will have to travel to Croatia to take
of the inventor's birthplace. Dragan needs to find out whether or not
has been destroyed during the fighting.
Dragan makes no attempt to hide his disgust that Daisy's
will allow her to safely travel to the country, while, as a Serb, he
despite the fact that he has family there.
"Americans are welcome everywhere, isn't that right?" he
Despite her reservations, Daisy agrees to the deal.
way she hooks up with a hunky European hipster (Amir Babayoff) and sees
a whole lot of sights she hadn't bargained for. Monday's dress
had Daisy skipping through a possible minefield like she was on a
shopping trip at Target. But overall, the cast (including Schremmer and
particularly Barbara Farrar, who plays Dragan's assistant Biljana)
the play's strong material with thought-provoking and passionate
The Waldron Stage (formerly Theatre B) provides the perfect
venue for the production. Director Jere Hodgin makes good use of the
as the action moves from the Tesla archives to a bus and to Croatian
Stanley succeeds in providing background information on the
Tesla without making things feel too much like a classroom. Which is
because the material moves far beyond discussions of Tesla's rivalry
Daisy, too, begins to focus on things other than Tesla's
life, a subject
that has engrossed her for several years. That's why, by the final
the young woman is left grappling with an identity crisis.
"Humans don't need a death ray to commit mass murder," Daisy
"They do a fine job by themselves."
In the face of all these killings, does it matter whether
a weapon of mass destruction? If her studies do not have value, then
sort of work does, Daisy has to ask. Ultimately all of the play's
must decide whether it is still possible to create change in the world,
or whether doomsday has come and gone.
It's a question Stanley leaves to haunt the audience as