BWW Review: POSSESSING HARRIET an Intriguing World Premiere Play at Syracuse Stage

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BWW Review: POSSESSING HARRIET an Intriguing World Premiere Play at Syracuse Stage
Nicole King in Syracuse Stage's world premiere production of Possessing Harriet. Photo by Michael Davis.

Syracuse Stage - Central New York's premier professional theatre in residence at Syracuse University - is bringing an intense world premiere play Possessing Harriet to its loyal audience base. The historical play, meticulously researched and written by award-winning local playwright and Syracuse Stage's associate director Kyle Bass, is realized in a thought-provoking and emotional production beautifully directed by Tazewell Thompson.

The 90-minute drama, commissioned by the Onondaga Historical Association, is inspired by a piece of 19th century Central New York history. A twenty-four-year-old woman named Harriet Powell (Nicole King) was able to escape her slave-owners, The Davenports. The Davenports previously resided in Central New York, but relocated to Mississippi. Harriet - who could easily pass as a white woman - accompanied the family on a trip to Syracuse in 1839 where she encountered Thomas Leonard (Daniel Morgan Shelley), a free black man who aided her escape and connected her to local abolitionists. Harriet stayed in Gerrit Smith's (Wynn Harmon) home briefly. Gerritt Smith helped arrange Harriet's escape to Canada.

The inspiration (and starting point of the play) is derived from historical records. During the brief time that Harriet hid from slave catchers in Gerrit Smith's home, she met his young cousin, Elizabeth Cady (Lucy Lavely). Elizabeth Cady, later known as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was of course an outspoken advocate of women's rights. She briefly mentions the encounter with Harriet in her autobiography.

Bass imagines Harriet and Elizabeth's conversations, which are the focus of most of the play. They were the same age, but faced very different dilemmas.

The play takes place in real time and unfolds in Gerrit Smith's attic. We hear three conversations and two arguments between the four characters. As the slave catchers get closer and closer, Harriet must deal with the emotional consequences of her escape. Does she find freedom or submit once again to the Davenports' control?

The cast and creative team's obvious love and devotion to the work is made clear throughout, including in the acting and direction. The artistry is astonishing.

The artistic elements, as per usual for Syracuse Stage productions, were flawless. Scenic designer Donald Eastman's beautiful and well-constructed set - featuring a window letting and cathedral ceiling - transports us to Gerrit Smith's attic in a breathtaking way. Stephen Quandt's lighting enhances the emotion of the piece as does Fabian Obispo's sound design. The background music that begins the show lets the audience know it is in for an intense theatrical experience. Carrie Robbins' costumes and Paul Huntley's wig/hair design are both historically appropriate and intricate.

The four actors completely embody their characters and their talent and passion shines in every moment they are on stage.

Nicole King is captivating and brilliant in the role of Harriet Powell. She delivers each line with power and intensity and her extraordinary acting skills are evident throughout. It gives a truly stunning performance of a great role.

Lucy Lavely's quick-tongue, confidence, energy, and spunk make perfect for a role such as Elizabeth Cady. Her chemistry with Nicole King is believable, especially in the moment where Elizabeth teaches Harriet how to spell her name. The beautifully written relationship between the two women is beautifully portrayed by both actresses.

Wynn Harmon as the opinionated and rather self-absorbed abolitionist Gerrit, delivers each monologue with great power and conviction. These monologues often involve Gerrit completely ignoring Harriet's presence or talking down to Elizabeth as he confidently and boldly offers his many opinions on slavery, politics, women, and so on - and Harmon does so perfectly.

Daniel Morgan Shelley is authoritative as Thomas the free black man. Unfortunately, on opening night there was an inappropriate disruption in the audience during one of his rather emotional and powerful monologues. Shelly, a truly talented professional, did not break character. His powerful and passionate line delivery is enthralling.

All told, the creative elements, acting, and direction all come together beautifully in this impactful production of the world premiere play. If I would offer one complaint it would be in the writing, specifically the constant reminder that Syracuse is the setting of the production. Still, the captivating play about the brave woman named Harriet Powell and her escape to freedom digs deep into a piece of local history that may not be well known. It's an intense play and production with great heart.

Running time: 90-minutes with no intermission.

Possessing Harriet runs through November 4, 2018 at Syracuse Stage, located at 820 East Genesee Street, Syracuse, NY. For tickets and information, click here or call 315-443-3274.

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From This Author Natasha Ashley