Sheldon Best, Christopher McCann, Emma ODonnell
Freed is that rare thing, a play that manages to entertain, educate and inspire, all at the same time, and it does it all so elegantly.
Charles Smith’s play tells the story of John Newton Templeton, the first free black man to attend college in the MIdwest.
Templeton was born a slave but set free at a young age, at the behest of his late master. Robert Wilson, a teacher and Reverend at Ohio University offers him the chance to complete a college education.
The production, for Penguin Rep, encompasses the stories of Templeton and. Wilson; the latter, it is revealed, wants Templeton to return to Africa as the president of Liberia. Smith also depicts the relationship between Templeton and Wilson’s wife, Jane.
This material could easily have come across as a lecture on Liberia or the rights of free black men in the era of slavery. Instead, Freed is a more human piece, more focused on the hopes and aspirations of Templeton.
Wilson befriends the young man and sponsors him at university. When Templeton is not able to live on campus, he stays with the Reverend and his wife; it is the character of Jane who provides a window on the reality of life outside of the university walls.
Christopher McCann, as Wilson, does a very good job of bringing a conflicted man to life. He is well meaning, but can be condescending when trying to be supportive. Though his performance avoids easy generalization and brings out the complexities of the character, it is Sheldon Best, as Templeton, and Emma ODonnell, as Jane, who make the greatest impression.
ODonnell, as the minister’s wife, burns up the stage with barely disguised anger towards the life she has. Templeton becomes a target for her frustration and disappointment with the world and her place in it. But her anger doesnt turn into self-pity and bitterness, it is expressed with the force of unflinching truth.
Best’s Templeton is the voice of the freed black American. He is smart and ambitious, albeit limited by the restrictions of his time and circumstances. He finds Jane’s antagonism uncomfortable and confusing.
The play proved moving in unexpected ways and the writing avoided banal and obvious arguments, forcing both the characters and, by extension, the audience to reevaluate their preconceptions. Credit has to go to Smith for the deft way he has handled this fascinating material.
Joe Brancato directs with a light hand, trusting his actors and the audience to make the journey together. Joseph J. Egan’s very simple set is enhanced by superb lighting design by Martin E. Vreeland and simple but appropriate period costumes by Patricia Doherty. The lighting in particular is subtle but effective in focusing attention on the individual characters.
This is a show that should be seen. It’s informative but never didactic and succeeds in really making its audience think.