One day, after a performance of his play The Patriot Act a couple of weeks ago, Ronald B. Campbell Jr. was approached by an audience member, an older man, in tears.
The estrangement between the central character in the play and his son echoed the audience member’s own estrangement from his son.
“I’m going to call him,” the man said.
Mr. Campbell tells the story to make a point: that while the play is deeply political — indeed it is subtitled ‘a parable’ — its power, indeed the power of any good art, is in the personal more than political dimension of it.
To illustrate a divided America, he came to realize, he needed a fractured family.
But it was the politics which came first.
Mr. Campbell, who lives in Edgartown and writes under the stage name Sandy Burns, is a huge fan of Arthur Miller, many of whose plays also were political, and whose real life was too, notably for his refusal to testify against others before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
“So I sketched out an idea of taking Arthur Miller-like character and putting him, the playwright, in situation like he put his characters,” he said.
The idea was this: a world-famous playwright named Will Carpenter, has run afoul of U.S. anti-terrorism laws through two of his works, which are deemed unpatriotic in their exploration of the roots of terrorism and are critical of the military.
He gets hauled before a House committee and is threatened with imprisonment. But he is given the choice of avoiding jail by writing what the government wants.
It’s not such a preposterous idea, really. As Mr. Campbell notes, we have plenty of examples of journalists denied access to the current administration unless they toe the ideological line or who regurgitate, verbatim, press releases and partisan talking points.
“Listen to Mitt Romney, saying Guantanamo should be doubled in size,” he said. “Phone companies assisting with illegal wire tapping.”
He set out to issue a warning about where these things were taking the country.
And from that premise, Mr. Campbell and his co-writer, Lydia Bruce, began constructing a play, about two and a half years ago.
Theirs is an unusual writing partnership. She lives in Rochester, N.Y., and he lives mostly here (he first sailed into Edgartown harbor in 1970, then became a seasonal resident two years later and now says he is “transitioning” toward full-time residency). Over the years, they have written about 30 pieces, including a handful of full-length plays, largely via e-mail exchange and latterly i-chat.
An early, short version of this work was produced by Playwright’s Forum at the Boston University Playwrights’ Theatre in 2006. The feedback was that it could grow into something bigger.
A one-act version was read at the Middleboro Arts Festival and subsequently at the Image Theater in Lowell, and then for a three-show run at an off-Broadway festival in 2007.
Along the way, it changed a lot. The first version had just three characters — the playwright, the government man and the FBI agent, although, Mr. Campbell says, the playwright’s wife and son were “implicitly” in it.
Implicit wasn’t enough for Ms. Bruce.
“She said it sounded awfully political, and that to make it work, we had to get a more personal element in it,” he said. “So the family became center.”
In particular, the estrangement of the writer from his son, and the resolution of their personal and political conflict.
We can’t say more about how that resolves itself, except that much, according to Mr. Campbell, turns on a line from Martin Luther King Jr. which is worked into the dialogue near the end: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
And so it was decided, about a year ago, that the premiere of the final work would take place at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“Last summer we went to Edinburgh for 10 days, saw plays, venues, buttonholed producers, saw organizers, before we decided to take it there.
“There were several reasons. Edinburgh is very democratic; anybody can take a play there. All you have to do is rent a space. There’s no jury of great and good, wise and experienced.
“And it’s just so prestigious. I think there were about 2,200 pieces of theatre presented during the festival, and also some 2,000 producers from all over, who come to see it.
“They’re very assiduous, too, about reviewing things. We got about 15 reviews in papers, magazines, their version of Variety, the Scotsman.”
But before they would do it, they wanted the right people in place. They got Adam Zahler, of Boston to direct. They enlisted Will Lyman to play Will Carpenter.
“The minute he did that, we able to recruit a great cast, which probably has much to do with our success,” said Mr. Campbell, noting that the director and cast also made significant changes to the play during rehearsal.
And it was a success, although not at first.
One day in the first week of the three-week run (which finished August 25), the audience comprised just five people.
“But then we got two wonderful reviews after the first week. They rated it a five-star play.”
After that, the house was full.
The Patriot Act ended up getting a five-star review in the Scotsman, and a HotPlay designation (one of only seven plays so designated), and The Stage, Britain’s theatrical newspaper, accorded Mr. Lyman with a best actor nomination. Among other plaudits, the festival magazine designated it “FestBest”.
Mr. Carpenter only returned to the Vineyard last week, but said he had already fielded several expressions of interest, both from the U.K. and here, for other productions of the work.
Sadly, there are no plans, yet, to do a production here, although Mr. Campbell has hopes for the future.
“I’m a long-time attendee of the Vineyard Playhouse,” he said. “I would love for my friends here to be able to see it.”