9/17/2022 MY BROTHER’S SECRET KEEPER Pumphouse Players
A HOUSE DIVIDED
(Bias Alert: I have worked with Pumphouse Players and will do so again. Forewarned is Grain-of-Salt Forearmed!)
It could very easily be about (almost) any family today in the wake of January 6, 2021. One member espouses radical political views and commits an extreme act, causing the spotlight of publicity and judicial inquiry to bring out unwanted shadows from the corners of their lives.
But Emily McClain’s My Brother’s Secret Keeper is about an historical family, one who craved one sort of spotlight, but, in the wake of April 14, 1865, found themselves the focus of public attention totally at odds with their careers as actors and theatrical entrepreneurs. Which is to say, the more time that passes, the more things do NOT change.
Meet the Booth brothers, Junius, Edwin, and Johnny, uniting for the first time ever on the New York Stage, all for a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a performance meant to finance a Central Park statue of Shakespeare to honor Edwin’s late wife Mary. They are soon joined by their sister Asia, whose cold marriage seems to be falling apart. They are the progeny of the early 19th-century actor, Junius Brutus Booth, who came to America with his mistress and toured the fledgling country with his sons.
Johnny was just a child when Junius (Sr) died and worships his memory, blaming his elder brother Edwin for abandoning their father. It doesn’t help that Edwin seems to be keeping Johnny’s own career stifled, relegating him to tour “Southern Backwaters like Atlanta.” Edwin was the foremost Shakespeare
tragedian of the day, and, to keep the family reputation intact insisted John use the name “J.B. Wilkes” professionally. John simply wants to be recognized as a Booth.
John is also a devoted supporter of the Confederate Cause, and, while the brothers are preparing their production of Caesar, involves himself in a plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln.
I believe, all y’all know the rest. In the wake of the assassination, the entire family is questioned and imprisoned, Asia’s husband leaves for good, Junius Jr. is stricken with illness (though he will survive until 1882), and Edwin is left to pick up the pieces of his shattered career.
Ms. McClain (author of the marvelous Slaying Holofernes from the 2019 Essential New Play Festival) has fashioned a play that brings this family to vivid life. Johnny is a volatile hothead (I couldn’t help hearing echoes of Sondheim’s Assassins’ portrait of him) and, perhaps, not without talent, though nowhere near the level of Edwin. Edwin is cold, shattered by the early death of his wife, determined to hide from the public the true nature of their father’s sins (ALL the Booth children were essentially illegitimate, as their father abandoned his British spouse and only divorced after they were all grown). Junius Jr is left to bankroll the production as Edwin wants ALL the proceeds to go to his wife’s memorial. And Asia is left as the peacemaker, trying to smooth over Johnny’s radical choices and Edwin’s coldly distant control.
How much did the siblings know about Johnny’s plans? That remains an historical mystery, though none of them were ever charged with being part of the conspiracy.
Aaron Brasher gives us a vivid portrait of Johnny, sporting the iconic moustache we’ve come to recognize, filled to the brim with anger and passion and even humor. Devoted to his sister, he bridles at Edwin’s over-controlling choices, and does everything he can to make his own mark as an actor.
Ross McLeod brings a certain humorlessness to Edwin – we never get to see him actually perform, so he is never required to demonstrate Edwin’s reputed abilities, but he does nothing to make us doubt them. As Junius, Joel Rose is convincing as the “eldest brother,” though he may make the illness of the final scene more severe than it should have been – bear in mind he survived his infamous brother by almost twenty years. And Christie Lee Fisher brings to Asia a warm and sisterly appeal – equally devoted to all her brothers. With secrets of her own, she is able to hide from them the realities of her failing marriage.
Pumphouse has unfortunately made this a “one weekend only” production outside their main season, which is a shame – today is really your last opportunity to see it (I and I encourage you to do so).
Yes, this is a period piece, with costumer Sandy Cunningham doing a marvelous job bringing it to life. Staged on a simple set, our focus remains on the family, on their squabbles and successes and passions. And, of course, as a period piece, we are allowed to feel a little cultural smugness – this kind of house divided could, of course, never happen in our more enlightened times.
Now, please forgive me for cutting these comments short – I just came up with a brilliant plan to “accidentally” shatter my wife’s [Deleted by the Marital Harmony Police] mug.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #PumphousePlayers #EmilyMcClain #MyBrothersSecretKeeper )