In 'Miss Evers' Boys,' A Bitter History Well Told

Rhonda Gayle Carney, as Nurse Evers, and George Mayfield as Ben Washington in the Hard Bargain Players' production of
Rhonda Gayle Carney, as Nurse Evers, and George Mayfield as Ben Washington in the Hard Bargain Players' production of "Miss Evers' Boys." The play will run through July 1 at Hard Bargain Farm. (By Janet Zavistovich)
By Lynn Follmer Thorne
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 22, 2006

The latest production at Hard Bargain Players in Accokeek offers a history lesson very much worth learning.

"Miss Evers' Boys" is an insightful look at the Tuskegee medical studies on syphilis conducted from the early 1930s until the '70s. The production will leave you feeling outraged at the treatment of a group of African American sharecroppers who put their faith in doctors, their nurse and the U.S. government.

Much of the credit for that goes to a very strong script by David Feldshuh, which portrays true events that took place in rural Macon County, Ala. The Tuskegee experiment, as it later became known, followed male syphilis patients who were lied to and denied treatment for years as part of a study of the disease's effect on African American men.

Both writer and director let history do most of the talking. Little additional drama is needed to produce the desired effects: namely, the shock, anger and sadness on behalf of innocent men who were treated as human guinea pigs and allowed to die in the interest of medical studies.

The central character in the play, Nurse Evers, is based on real-life nurse Eunice Rivers, who tended to the group of men for most of the study's 40-year span. Rivers was forced not only to lie to her patients, but to care for and watch them gradually succumb to the disease.

As Nurse Evers, Rhonda Gayle Carney turns in a decent performance, although her cadence tends to make her delivery choppy. She narrates part of the story as though testifying before Congress, and her emotions ring less true during these monologues than when she is actively engaging other members of the cast. Her initial enthusiasm seems a bit forced, but she is more credible as she befriends each of her patients. She is most enjoyable during a scene with one of her patients, Caleb Humphries, in which he is trying to romance her.

Jason Nious as Caleb is the show's standout. A charismatic actor, he commands attention in or out of the spotlight.

The nuances of his performance are remarkable. His character evolves from a suspicious naysayer to a firm believer, and ultimately an embittered patient who nonetheless seeks to forgive. Nious seems to roll right through each evolution effortlessly.

Most of the cast turns in good performances. As energetic Willie Johnson, Terry Spann also rides the rails of an emotional roller coaster with success. Spann creates such a bond with the audience that to watch his eventual despair is heartbreaking. George Mayfield does a nice job as Ben Washington, the older, wiser patient of the bunch. Kenny Cooper's portrayal of Hodman Bryan brings us from laughter to tears as we watch his homegrown attempts to cure their "bad blood."

As John Douglas, the physician so intent on conducting a perfect study that he loses sight of humanity, David Timmerman turns in a fine performance. He makes you believe in Douglas's fervency. Unfortunately, the other doctor is not as convincing. Earl Harris falls short of being at all believable as Eugene Brodus.

One special performance note: The production includes some spectacular old-style dancing that is not to be missed. Whether you're familiar with the style or not, you can't help but get caught up in the enthusiastic rhythms when the characters start to perform. These segments alone are worth the price of admission.

The technical elements are simple but effective. Very few set pieces are used, but those appear authentic and add necessary touches. Brian Donahue's sound design adds to the overall impact, as does Juliana "Juls" Bodgan's lighting design.

This is a difficult show to stomach because it forces us to face head-on the wrongs that were committed ostensibly under the guise of obtaining medical knowledge. While the reality is harsh, the highlights in this production are numerous, and so are the lessons to be learned.

"Miss Evers' Boys" will be performed at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through July 1 at the Amphitheater at Hard Bargain Farm, 2001 Bryan Point Rd., Accokeek. Tickets are $12 for adults; $10 for students, seniors and Alice Ferguson Foundation members. For reservations, call 301-392-9901 or e-mailreservations@hbplayers.org. For information, visithttp://www.hbplayers.org.


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