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The Heat Is Off

Despite Explosive Material, Summer Never Quite Catches Fire

Lynda McClary and Matthew J. Bowerman in Freedom Summer

By Michael Anft | Posted 8/16/2000

Freedom Summer

Carol Weinberg

With its righteous theme of fighting for a noble cause, its interracial component--proof that black and white Americans can work together--and its sad ending at the hands of white Southern bigots, the story of the July 1964 murders of civil-rights activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney has captured the imaginations of white artists historians of all ilks, from filmmaker Alan Parker (with his historically botched 1988 film, Mississippi Burning) to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Taylor Branch.

Add Goucher College education professor and Baltimore Playwrights Festival mainstay Carol Weinberg's name to the list of those who have been moved enough by this tragic tale to incorporate it into their art. Weinberg's latest festival entry, Freedom Summer, a dramatic interpretation of the state of the American soul in the troubled mid '60s now in production at the Vagabond Players, looks at the Movement through the eyes of Goodman, then a 20-year-old student at Queens College in New York.

But Weinberg's intent extends beyond bringing us the poignant reminiscences of a committed and ultimately frightened young Goodman (a wrenching role played pitch-perfectly by Matthew Bowerman), to the emotional pull his disappearance and death exerts on a bored Queens housewife (Fran Clayburn, portrayed ably by Lynda McClary). The playwright's ambition--to show how Goodman's life and death inspired a frustrated middle-aged wife and mother to act--reflects a plausible observation: Many white Americans were shook out of their indifference when members of their own race died for blacks' civil rights. Fran says as much near the end of the play's first act, when she laments that Goodman "is almost like one of my own."

Weinberg's thematic construction becomes a bit overloaded, however, when Fran becomes a theatrical mouthpiece for the women's movement. Frustrated by her lack of a life outside the home, she reads Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and considers an abortion in Mexico, with all the requisite "it's my body" rhetoric. Of course, if there was ever a time in modern history that would support such a confluence of revolutionary social concerns, the '60s were it. But there simply isn't enough freshness and life in Weinberg's words to sustain interest in all the changes Fran and her world are undergoing. The flatness in the relationship between Fran and her cop husband, Mike (stalwartly played by Chris Graybill), hovers over the play like a pall, reminding us that dramatic couplings need to transcend their symbolism--or, in this case, stereotyped roles--to make heavy-handed themes fly.

Set alternately in a Queens kitchen (an ingeniously retro set designed by John Johnson) and just offstage, where Bowerman delivers supercharged soliloquies and recitations of Goodman's letters home, Freedom Summer begins with Fran angrily flinging toast onto a breakfast table, then moves on as she graduates to a woman capable of abandoning her family for an unannounced trip to Mississippi. Nowhere does this seem believable--her conversion is too complete, too programmatic, especially given the fact that Mike is hardly a brute. Act One explores the tension over Fran's pregnancy, her desire to end it, her ambivalence toward her role in the family, and her deepening regard for Goodman, who, she learns from her always-on radio, has disappeared without a trace in Philadelphia, Miss..

The dramatic promise of the first act gives way to relationships in the second that never become richer, leaving the play's center wanting. We are given some maudlin moments between Fran and her two younger kids (played by Lauren Bader and Jason Rebholz), and a denouement that glibly tries to create a bridge between the two movements that inspired Weinberg. Freedom Summer unfortunately ends up coming off as a shotgun marriage between the causes of women and blacks and, alas, it never overcomes its own good intentions.

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