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Review: ‘The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt’ at Aldersgate Church Community Theater

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Aldersgate Church Community Theater presents the world premiere of local playwright Rich Amada’s The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt, an award-winning historical drama about one of the most famous trials of the 19th century, and the ethical controversy it inspired. Eleanore Tapscott directs this fervent courtroom drama.

After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, suspects were quickly rounded up and held for a simultaneous trial. This included Mary Surratt, a known Confederate sympathizer and owner of the boarding house frequented by John Wilkes Booth and other suspected conspirators. Surratt is charged with aiding and abetting her co-defendants, and, if convicted, she will be the first woman ever sentenced to death by the United States government.

Now of course, history tells us that yes, Mrs. Surratt was indeed convicted for this crime, though the questions that this play poses are not that of her guilt or innocence (a contentious subject to this day), but of the overall treatment of her case and person. Did an angry, grieving Union make a hasty and biased decision? Did the judicial system fail a civilian that it was created to protect?

The cast of The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt. Photograph by Howard Soroos.

Set designer Charles Dragonette splits the stage three-ways, with the focus being a simple courtroom, where lighting designer MCDragin projects a large image of iconic brass scales. Constructor Becky Patton and her assistants  build Mrs. Surratt’s bleak cell, painted a whitewashed brick by Stacey Becker and Mary Hutzler. However, my favorite set piece is a large projection screen, where projections designed by Farrell Tapscott show historical images, from pictures of the accused to newspaper clippings. They add a layer of depth to the drama, reminding you of the reality of the situation, and in that, the magnitude. Costume designers Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting and wardrobe by Margaret Snow dress the women as they lived; in heavy, modest dresses and woven shawls. Sound designer David Corriea provides useful effects, the most memorable being the macabre, swinging thumps as the executioners practiced their skill outside of Mrs. Surratt’s cell. Overall the technical team, overseen by master electrician Marg Soroos, provide a solid foundation and framework for the actors to utilize.

Mrs. Surratt’s story unfolds through the infamous trial, as well as in a series of flashbacks. Widowed, she opens a boarding house where she hosts a number of questionable characters, including the dumb, drunken John Lloyd (Michael Schwartz), whose testimony is particularly damning. Surratt’s attorney Frederick Aiken (a passionate performance by Mytheos Holt, and in my opinion, the most memorable), is eager, though inexperienced, and up against the towering force that is John Bingham (another standout performance by James Pearson). The two argue through a slew of circumstantial evidence, and when addressing the tribunal, they plead toward the audience itself, quite literally placing you into the dense, difficult situation. I do love the chemistry between these two, both staunchly rooted in their convictions, and earning a rare laugh from the audience when Bingham states, “not all soldiers wear uniforms anymore!,” to which Bingham responds, “but how many of them wear petticoats?”

In the center of it all is Mrs. Surratt, nicely played by Charlene Sloan. Proud, outspoken, and unwavering in her claim of innocence, she sits throughout the hearing with a sour, pinched face, before declaring, “this isn’t a trial. It’s a cleansing.” When Mrs. Surratt is given one last desperate opportunity to save herself in a plea that would strip her of her pride and values, she remains unyielding. For that, no matter where your opinion of her lies, she is due some solemn respect.

Though the performances are not perfectly polished, these are passionate actors. The cast is well chosen, including Emily Golden as Mrs. Surratt’s hysterical daughter Anna and Nicholas Barta as the charming John Wilkes Booth himself. They work well together, and do a fine job with the sensitive material in which they are trusted.

This is a dialogue-driven drama, and much of what makes it so very interesting are the questions that it poses of our society–questions that are just as relevant as they were over 100 years ago. Its factual origin and contempletive nature make it especially suited for history and philosophy enthusiasts. We all know someone who collects Civil War novels, or have that one friend from college who still quotes Thoreau whenever they can. This play was written for them to see.

Aldersgate Church Community Theater’s production of The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt is guaranteed to inspire thoughtful post-show debate and discussion. Grab a few friends and take in a showing for a memorable night out.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt plays through October 15, 2017 at Aldersgate Church – 1301 Collingwood Rd in Alexandria, VA. Purchase your tickets at the door or online.

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