THE BLOG
11/26/2014 12:04 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

First Nighter: Frederick Douglass, Simon Wiesenthal and Mat Smart's 'Naperville' on Stages

Phil Darius Wallace, with director and co-creator Melania Levitsky, has given himself a plum role in Self Made Man: The Frederick Douglass Story, at the Arclight.

Perhaps he noticed one day that if he had a full beard, he would resemble portraits of the former slave who bought his own freedom while speaking out about fellow slaves and eventually presenting his beliefs to Abraham Lincoln in the White House.

Wallace and Levitsky probably haven't convinced themselves that the actor also resembles Lincoln, but Wallace plays him as well. In a 90-minute solo outing, he is also several other characters, including abolitionists John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.

Sweeping onto Angelina Margolis's set featuring only a lectern, a frame representing a front porch, a colorful mural and a coat rack on which props are hung, Wallace wears a quilted cape that perhaps he and Levitsky think of as a freedom cape. Immediately, he begins to relive Douglass's biography.

He plays the boy Douglass, who learns to read when a benevolent woman slave owner takes him, now a house slave, under her care. He plays Douglass as he grows up in less fortuitous circumstances and eventually travels to England for political reasons and a better perspective on how he sees his mission developing.

To Wallace's great advantage, he has a resonant voice, which he uses as an argument for Douglass's persuasive skills. A patron has to think, This must be what Douglass sounded like. This has to be how he drew listeners to his side, to his beliefs, to his convictions about the equality of men and women. He not only speaks his fertile mind but also repeatedly quotes William Shakespeare. He often sings in a moving baritone -- "Amazing Grace" not the least of the traditional songs he reprises.

Before Wallace's finishes the Frederick Douglass story, he sermonizes, too. The message he wants to get across is that the most important lesson to learn is forgiveness as absolutely obligatory. He insists that without the ability and the inclination to forgive, nothing has been gained in the way of freedom.
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Tom Dugan catches Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal's last day at the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. As Dugan sees it and plays Wiesenthal, at the Acorn, the tireless man has welcomed a group of interested parties to his office -- a cluttered room designed by Beowulf Boritt -- for an informal talk.

Addressing the audience as the visitors, Wiesenthal talks about his accomplishments, putting them in a larger context. He detail how he tracked, not to say stalked, Nazis murderers around the globe. He makes certain to point out before he's done that those he found and saw brought to trial and imprisonment are a relatively small number in comparison to the larger files he has of others he was unable to locate.

Dugan impersonates Wiesenthal as an affable man, who even offers grapes to visitors. But behind the affability is a man driven to complete his searches. He only ceases his activities because he's tired and wants to spend more time with the patient wife he says is waiting for him at home.

Several times during the 90 minutes Wiesenthal spends with his guests he excuses himself to make a phone call. Though it's his last day -- as soon as he leaves, his secretary will pack the shelves of books and filing cabinet contents -- he is still tracking another Nazi war criminal. He's leaving messages for someone with possible information about the man but explains that he doesn't expect a response. He doesn't receive one and simply lets it go at that.

In a program note, Dugan, directed well by Jenny Sullivan, says that as an Irish Catholic he was drawn to Wiesenthal through his father, a World War II veteran who was involved with liberating the Langenstein concentration camp but, even after what he witnessed, refused to accept the theory of collective guilt.

(Interestingly, that aspect of Dugan's monologue echoes the Wallace-Levitsky emphasis on forgiveness.)

On a table in the office Wiesenthal is about to abandon -- telling the visitors they can see themselves out and take whatever cookies he's left behind -- is a sunflower in a vase. Wiesenthal says he always has one on display to remind him that hope endures. As he goes, he takes it with him and then does something that won't be described here. It's too surprising and meaningful a parting gesture to give away.
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Mat Smart's Naperville takes place in a coffee shop in the title town. During the course of one day, two regulars, the son of one of them, a young woman doing research on the burg and a manager on his first day converge to mixed results.

More specifically, these five are all psychologically and physically damaged. What Smart is up to is constructing a play -- it's another intermissionless 90-minuter -- in which the impaired gather without realizing they're about to help one another heal.

The physically impaired are Candice (Susan Greenhill), who recently fell off a ladder and somehow ended up losing her eyesight; and T. C. (Brett Epstein), a clarinetist, now a first-day manager who only eventually reveals his particular infirmity. The psychologically compromised are Anne (Stacey Yen), recently divorced and at a loss over it while she prepares a Naperville history; Howard (Matt Dellapina), Candice's son in from Seattle to care for his whether she likes it or not; and Roy, an aggressively positive fellow with his own demons.

During the long day, when other never-seen coffee lovers stop into the store that Meredith Ries designed cleverly, these five congregate. Anne and Howard are old school acquaintances, although he's had a crush on her for years and she barely remembers him. The newly blind Candice wants to be left to her own devices, despite Howard's insistence that she needs him around while she accustoms herself to her new situation. T. C. is concerned that he does well on the new job, particularly that, as the owner demands, he shuts the doors at 10 p. m, which ultimately doesn't happen.

What does happen after the five repeatedly engage with each other -- Howard and Anne have a session in the toilet where she'd gone to bemoan her fate -- is that after some amusing and effective encounters, they indulge in an after-closing fantasy about a journey on Roy's sail boat. Going with the flow of this five-way improvisation, they let their worst fears out and therefore achieve communal catharsis.

All the Naperville actors are extremely good, but that denouement development is far too over-the-top for anyone to credit. With Adam Knight guiding the players and doing his best with the script, playwright Smart appears to have his surname capabilities. It's a good bet he'll have things down more convincingly next time.