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Theatre Raleigh opens a new play that wars against censorship and excessive government control. This play, Where Words Once Were, is disguised as a children's show but nonetheless has cautionary words for us all, in a script that is short on verbiage and long on message. Using only a sparse set and a small, seven-member cast, Theatre Raleigh's presentation of playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer's tale is entertaining and ranks quite high on the "This is Important" message meter.
The playwright drops us into a futuristic "City" which uses draconian means to control its population. It does this by creating, or rather curtailing, public speech to a limitation of only 1,000 words. All words not included in the 1,000 are banned from usage or, truth be told, even thought. Furthermore, no one other than a high-ranking official may be in possession of a pen. The reasoning behind this law becomes clear early in the play. It is quite possible that a pen "in the wrong hands" could foment rebellion.
In this dystopia we become acquainted with three children in grade school who are model pupils in a highly regulated environment. They are allowed pens to use in their schoolwork but they must get them from the teacher each morning and return them to him each afternoon. Any child caught with a pen outside class is instantly suspected of radicalism and "taken away" for punishment. The three children are Orhan (Vincent Bland) and his two friends Eila (Christine Lane) and Kieran (Matthew Harvey). Their (very controlling) Teacher is played by Sean McCracken. Tyanna West plays Alli, Orhan's mom. The cast is rounded out by Isaac (Liam Yates), a City official, and a "silenced" Girl (Qualia Holder-Cozart). The Girl, whose name we learn is Angela, is also the story's narrator. But she has become a Silent, one who cannot speak and someone to whom no one else may speak. Through years of training, those people who are not Silent are trained not even to see a Silenced person. These people become the City's menials, who clean the streets or pick up trash. They are uniformly ignored by all those who may still communicate through speech. Not surprisingly, Angela has become a Silent through no fault of her own: her father, Gus, used language outside of the Thousand Words and was Silenced. Because a Silent is believed never to have existed, the City saw fit to Silence those who are the offspring of a Silent as well.
It becomes clear to us that the iron fist that holds the populace of the City is modeled on the 1940s model of Hitler's Germany. Rules are universally and severely enforced; everyone is encouraged to watch and report on his neighbors; and total allegiance to the City is an expected norm. In this environment, the City itself takes the place of a megalomaniacal leader. But City officials are expected to enforce the City's laws in exactly the same way as Hitler's officials were. Thus the rampant fear among the City leaders that rebellion can lurk behind every corner. It is a suspicion that always generates itself in such a government.
Rebellion does, indeed, come to the City, but it does so in quite an innocent fashion. Orhan's mom, Alli, was a child when the City clamped down on its residents. She was an immigrant who came here with her parents — who taught her everything about the country from which she came. So all her memories are intact and all her language, as well. Isaac, too, very much like Alli, has all the memories he had when the City clamped down. Because Alli and Isaac are — slowly and carefully — starting a relationship, we see a lot of Isaac in Alli's bread shop. But his status as an official makes the budding relationship a strained one. Nevertheless, Alli looks forward to Isaac's daily visit, so much so that she is "caught" humming a tune by her son, one that is not an allowed ditty. She tells him it is one taught to her by her parents in the days before the Thousand Words. Orhan, of course, is eager to hear more. As a budding Man of Letters, he already feels constrained by having only a thousand words at his disposal.
The most sparkling scenes of the play are those between Orhan and Angela. Orhan, like all of his peers, cannot see Angela at first, but he concentrates on focusing on little things that indicate to him when she is present, and soon he has trained himself to actually see and talk to her. It is this relationship that also makes him focus on his mom's tune as being outside what he is programmed to understand.
Director Noah Putterman, a Raleigh native who has since moved elsewhere, returns to Raleigh to direct Where Words Once Were. As the script intends, he brings the show to a close quickly after the rebellion is seen to be coming. Thus we are left with the hope that it will succeed but without our having to witness the hard and twisted path it will have to go down in order to do so. The finale has all seven of the cast singing Alli's remembered song as they bring out and show us pictures of Alli's home, all prior to the City. In the final moment, these pictures are turned over to reveal the "final word" on the subject, LANGUAGE.
Kruckemeyer's cautionary tale is both sobering and uplifting because, within the confines of these City walls, freedom is already flexing its muscles. But the caution is not lost on us, by any means. The ties that bind are clear: let us never allow our freedoms to be curtailed in the name of safety. Freedom is a prize too revered and too precious to allow our fears to squash it. So "We the People" must be vigilant, lest the same sad fate be visited upon us.
Where Words Once Were continues through Sunday, April 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.