Kudos to playwright Marion Zola for bringing us the story of Bet, a brave and quite intelligent slave in the late 18th century, who sued for her freedom … and won. “MumBet” (Catherine Bruhier) served in the household of Colonel John Ashley (John Combs filling in the role), one of the framers of the Massachussets Declaration of Rights, asserting that all men are equal. When she asked about women, she was assured that the document included women as well. But her case was not taken seriously until it was taken up by the Colonel’s colleague, Theodore Sedgewick (Michael Robb). Ultimately adjudicated before a jury, her successful suit created the foundation for ending slavery in Massachusetts well before the Civil War.
Alas, this taut tale is only the beginning of Zola’s play. Following Bet’s freedom, we view more of her long life in a way that includes her midwifery, innovations in medicine, and more; thus muddying the impact of her extraordinary achievement in order to give a us more of a historical overview of the times.
To manage the cinematically written script, Director Linda Alznauer has to stage a cavalcade of locations against a permanent setting designed by Jeff G. Rack to serve two shows in repertory. Ultimately, one scene bleeds onto another background and sometimes entrances and exits are created where before there were none. Other production values are fine, although Judy Lewin has to stretch to come up with proper wigs from the 18th century for the attorneys in the courtroom scene, and at times, Michael Mullen’s elaborate dresses are too fine even for Massachusetts.
As a Theatre 40 fan since college days, I continue to exult in the original choices, the brave chances and steady volume of work the company produces. Not only for the historical value of Zola’s play, but to catch a constantly evolving company in action, try not to miss One Moment of Freedom.
One Moment of Freedom continues Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm through next weekend (August 27th) at Theatre 40, 241 S. Morena Dr., in the Mary Levin Cutler Theatre, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. All tickets, $35. For reservations, phone 310-364-3606, or online at http://theatre40.org.