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Playwright and screenwriter Peter Colley's intriguing new biographical drama The Man in the Desert, now making its world premiere at Theatre in the Park in Raleigh, NC, is an eye-opening exploration of a heretofore private chapter of the very public life of Lawrence of Arabia— a life so public, in fact, that World War I hero T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) left the British Army, fled his fame, and enlisted in the Royal Air Force under the pseudonym of Aircraftman Second Class Ned Shaw. The Man in the Desert catches up with Lawrence/Shaw in the early 1930s as he arrives at the remote RAF base in Basrah, Iraq, on his way to the Far East. TIP executive and artistic director Ira David Wood III gives a passionate and completely compelling performance in the title role of a reluctant hero, with some painful monkeys on his back, whose latest desperate attempt at achieving anonymity is about to be ruined by the arrival at the base of a pair of old friends, left-wing political activist Mrs. George Bernard (Charlotte) Shaw (Christine Rogers) and future memoirist Clare Sydney Smith (Andrea Schulz Twiss), who want to convince Lawrence to return to Great Britain, each for her own selfish reason. Wood eloquently portrays Lawrence's anguish at having his privacy violated once again, even by well-meaning friends.
Christine Rogers gives a pert performance as concerned friend Charlotte Shaw, who thinks Lawrence would be useful to the political causes that she embraces; and Andrea Schulz Twiss is a delight as bouncy blonde bombshell Clare Sydney Smith, whose not-so-secret crush on Lawrence makes him acutely uncomfortable and his new RAF mates deeply envious.
Andrea’s husband, Adam Twiss, gives two crisp characterizations. He’s avuncular as American writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas, who concocted the immensely popular multimedia presentation “With Lawrence in Arabia” that made Lawrence a household name; and he’s a picture of righteous indignation as Corporal “Crasher” Dunstone, who hates Lawrence, because he thinks that Lawrence is a glory hound who took the lion’s share of the credit for winning the Arab Revolt while rank-and-file British soldiers suffered and died in anonymity.
Shawn Rhodes also acquits himself well as Leading Aircraftman “Tam” Walden; and Tim Overcash makes a most impressive TIP debut as Arab Revolt leader and Lawrence’s old friend Prince Feisal, who materializes in a series of flashbacks during which Lawrence and Feisal win the war but lose the peace when the British and the French shamefully renege on promises they made to their Arab allies.
Director Michael Lilly expertly orchestrates the action of The Man in the Desert, on a magnificently detailed set devised by TIP scenic and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson, whose work here is superlative. (His sets are truly extraordinary.) Larson not only does an excellent job of assembling the guns, other military equipment, and props needed for this compelling drama; but his wife, costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, also does an outstanding job of dressing the cast in an impressive array of 1930s military and civilian fashions.
The Man in the Desert is still in need of some fine-tuning. For example, the presence of the omnipresent but unseen Bedouins who may or may not be threatening the RAF base needs to be made much more palpable to make the dramatic payoff more powerful. Nevertheless, this play contains memorable characters and the kernel of a compelling drama that will no doubt captivate audiences in other locations where they have a star and supporting cast—and smart staging and a brilliant set and costumes—to match the current production at Raleigh's Theatre in the Park.
Theatre in the Park presents The Man in the Desert Thursday-Friday, Feb. 22-23, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 24, at 3 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 25, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $19 ($13 students and seniors 55+). 919/831-6058 or via etix @ the presenter's site. Note 1: Arts Access, Inc., will provide audio description of the Feb. 22nd performance. Note: 2: Assad Meymandi will lead a talkback session after the Feb. 25th performance. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/2006-07_productions/man_desert/desert.htm [inactive 11/09]. Peter Colley: http://www.petercolley.com/. The Man in the Desert: http://www.petercolley.com/LAWRENCE.htm (background information) and http://www.petercolley.com/LAWRENCE_PDF_download.htm (script). T.E. Lawrence—Online Resources: http://telawrence.info/telawrenceinfo/index.htm. The TELawrence.net Project (Lawrence's writings online): http://telawrence.net/telawrencenet/index.htm. The T.E. Lawrence Society: http://telsociety.org.uk/telsociety/index.htm [inactive 3/07]. Lawrence of Arabia (1962 film): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056172/ (Internet Movie Database). Lawrence of Arabia: The Battle for the Arab World (2003 PBS special): http://www.pbs.org/lawrenceofarabia/index.html.