|Thursday, January 18, 2001
'Tesla's Letters' a haunting,
Provocative play kicks off this year's Norfolk Southern Festival
of New Works at Mill Mountain
By BETH JONES
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
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 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
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.