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Quiet Tumult -04/30/1999

Creative team: Director Phillip Shaw; Scenic and Lighting Designer Kenneth P. Johnson; Costume Designer Vicki Tinervin; Sound Designer Phillip Shaw.

Play: Quiet Tumult: The Papers of Adlai Stevenson
Venue: McLean County Museum of History
Dates: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3:30 pm Sunday
Cost: General, $10; museum members, $8


Going into "Quiet Tumult: The Papers of Adlai Stevenson," I didn't know much more about Mr. Stevenson than, a) he ran for President, b) he lost, and c) he came from Bloomington.

Coming out of "Quiet Tumult," I knew a good deal more.

Still, the key to the success of this new play, written by Brian Simpson of Babbitt's Books, does not lie in how many biographical details it can communicate, but in whether it tells a compelling story.

After all, it's not an easy task to take a collection of political papers and make drama from them.

Simpson's take on his material is to construct a sort of kaleidoscope of Adlai E. Stevenson's career, as it might have spun around in his mind as he tried to reconstruct it for his memoirs.

The first part of the play involves the nomination process, as Stevenson is persuaded or pushed into running, while the next portion tackles the rigors of the campaign. Simpson offers a few words on the personal side of Stevenson's battles, when divorce and an old scandal briefly touch him, and then adds a short, more triumphant conclusion.

The second section is the strongest, both in its satirical depiction of the campaign trail, and as it introduces more conflict and tension in the form of red-baiting rabble-rousers Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy.

I would've liked to see more on the personal side, which is just hinted at here, to beef up that third section.

To tell his story, Simpson uses only three characters -- Stevenson himself, compellingly played by Don Shandrow, and two narrator figures, given energy and sincerity by David Krostal and Angie Davis. The latter assume various guises as they pop in and out of Stevenson's life -- a hat here, a jacket or a sweater there -- to sketch everyone from Harry Truman to Stevenson's mom. There are few props, little scenery, and basic lighting.

Since the play is supported so completely by documents, it's not surprising that its tone resembles a Ken Burns' documentary more than, say, "Richard II." But that's a form that suits the material, and it works well to give "Quiet Tumult" a sense of character and respect.

Shandrow's performance holds all those pieces of paper together, skillfully depicting a man who has frailties and failings, yet bedrock principle as well.

"Quiet Tumult" is lucky enough to have found a home in the absolutely gorgeous Old Courthouse upstairs in the McLean County Museum of History. The light fixtures alone are worth the price of admission.

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