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The Insurgents Review: Connecting Harriet Tubman to the Oklahoma City Bomber to Today

Insurgents11(c)Monique_CarboniThe first thing we know about Sally is that she likes guns. She also likes to read books about four figures in American history with whom she identifies — John Brown, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman…and the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. In Lucy Thurber’s “The Insurgents,” which has opened at the Labyrinth Theater Company, these people spring to life for Sally – but not, despite an exemplary cast, for us.

Ever since she had to drop out of college because of an injury that made her lose her athletic scholarship, Sally has been traveling the country, with her dead mother’s Bible, feeling lost, and discovering others who feel the same. But Sally has returned now to the rural town of her childhood in New Hampshire, surrounded by her gun and books, feeling trapped.

“There’s no work, there’s no money, and everybody knows everybody’s business,” she describes her hometown. “And you are the same person you were in first grade forever.”

Thurber is best known for the ambitious five-part cycle The Hill Town Plays that inaugurated the Village Theater Festival in 2013, which more or less chronologically tell the story of the pivotal moments in the life of a woman who is trying to escape the economically and psychologically impoverished world of the rural blue-collar town where she grew up.

Sally could be a classmate of the Hill Town Plays’ protagonist, one less lucky. Cassie Beck (The Whale, By The Water) portrays her as a likable, down-to-earth blonde. The four other cast members do double duty as people in Sally’s life, and in her imagination. Dan Butler (Bulldog on Frasier!) plays both Sally’s racist, misogynist father Peter, and John Brown. Craig ‘mums’ Grant (Poet on OZ!) portrays both a friend named Jonathon, and Nat Turner. April Mathis (Elevator Repair Service’s The Sound and the Fury) plays her coach and Harriet Tubman. Aaron Roman Weiner is both her concerned brother Jimmy, and the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Including McVeigh in Sally’s list of heroes is bizarre (like an S.A.T. question: “Which of these four do not belong with the others?”) and by far the most provocative aspect of the play, something that Thurber seems to realize. “It’s such a thin line between hero and terrorist, especially in America,” Sally defends McVeigh, pointing out elements of his biography to try to redeem him (he was a decorated soldier in Iraq). “In his mind he was at war.”

Is Thurber trying to argue for a direct line between the violent abolitionists of the 19th century and the violent extremists now?

“If the far right and the far left could actually listen to each other, they’d realize they sound a lot alike,” Timothy McVeigh says to Sally at one point.

Sally: That’s not true. I wish it was.

McVeigh: But they both want to decentralize big government-they both want personal freedom-they both-

Sally: There is no center-there is no action-we are fucked-we are so fucked-it was clear-clear slavery and torture are wrong-evil-wrong-but now-Now nothing in this fucken country is clear- What’s our great cause? What can we fight against?

The problem with “The Insurgents” is that it seems a work in progress, neither fully developed as drama nor as political argument. Each of the “insurgents” gets at least one long monologue, recounting an anecdote from their biography or restating familiar views, which are interesting but don’t especially add up to anything. We seem to be meant to see them as speaking inside Sally’s head, but nothing much comes of this dramatically either, nor of her interaction with the characters in her life. The only remotely fleshed out is Sally’s friend Jonathon, whom Sally met when she visited Detroit, where he tried to make the most out of his bombed out neighborhood by establishing a food store, using fresh produce from a garden he planted in the backyard rubble.

The best that can be said for “The Insurgents” is that it is one of the few new plays to acknowledge that people are still suffering an economic recession and a recession of hope — that, for many, there’s been no recovery.

The Insurgents

Labyrinth at the Bank Street Theater (155 Bank Street)

By Lucy Thurber; directed by Jackson Gay; sets by Raul Abrego; costumes by Jessica Ford; lighting by Paul Whitaker; sound by Broken Chord; technical director, John L. Simone;

Cast: Cassie Beck (Sally Wright); Dan Butler (John Brown/Peter); Craig Grant, also known as muMs (Nat Turner/Jonathan); April Matthis (Harriet Tubman/Coach); and Aaron Roman Weiner (Timothy McVeigh/Jimmy).

Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

The Insurgents is scheduled to run through March 8

Update: Extended to March 13

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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