Thursday, January 18, 2001 

 'Tesla's Letters' a haunting, instructive tale
 Provocative play kicks off this year's Norfolk Southern Festival of New Works at Mill Mountain 

The Roanoke Times 

There should be some sort of an award for a writer who mentions Franklin County moonshine, the ill-fated Yugo and inventor Nikola Tesla all in the same play. 

Yet more impressive is the way playwright Jeffrey Stanley takes an international conflict that still confounds many Americans and makes it feel close to home. 

In an inventive and highly effective approach, the Roanoke native-turned New York writer uses Tesla as a starting point to examine war-torn Yugoslavia. 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 soil. 

Stanley's play, "Tesla's Letters," launches this year's Norfolk Southern Festival of New Works at Mill Mountain Theatre. The festival continues through Jan. 28 with further performances of "Tesla's Letters," productions 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 American 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 1943. 

When Daisy reaches the museum, she's surprised and angered to learn that the somewhat shifty administrator has been counting on making a deal with her. In exchange for admission to Tesla's papers, Dragan (Richard Elmore) tells Daisy she will have to travel to Croatia to take photographs of the inventor's birthplace. Dragan needs to find out whether or not it has been destroyed during the fighting. 

Dragan makes no attempt to hide his disgust that Daisy's American passport will allow her to safely travel to the country, while, as a Serb, he cannot despite the fact that he has family there. 

"Americans are welcome everywhere, isn't that right?" he scoffs. 

 Despite her reservations, Daisy agrees to the deal. Along the 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 rehearsal had Daisy skipping through a possible minefield like she was on a fun-filled shopping trip at Target. But overall, the cast (including Schremmer and particularly Barbara Farrar, who plays Dragan's assistant Biljana) serves the play's strong material with thought-provoking and passionate performances. 

The Waldron Stage (formerly Theatre B) provides the perfect intimate venue for the production. Director Jere Hodgin makes good use of the space as the action moves from the Tesla archives to a bus and to Croatian soil. 

Stanley succeeds in providing background information on the life of Tesla without making things feel too much like a classroom. Which is important because the material moves far beyond discussions of Tesla's rivalry with Thomas Edison. 

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 scene, the young woman is left grappling with an identity crisis. 

"Humans don't need a death ray to commit mass murder," Daisy tells Biljana. "They do a fine job by themselves." 

In the face of all these killings, does it matter whether Tesla created a weapon of mass destruction? If her studies do not have value, then what sort of work does, Daisy has to ask. Ultimately all of the play's characters 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 well. 

All content herein is © 2001 Times-World Corp. and may not be republished without permission. 

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