Secret Passage 

The Carpenter Science Theatre lets its passengers tell the story of the Underground Railroad.

Jon Lipsky's script is a series of short vignettes that are derived from true stories of slaves who escaped to freedom. Though the play is intended for schoolchildren, it is not painfully didactic.

Best of all, the show contains a great deal of humor. One slave slips out of the courtroom while a pompous prosecutor pontificates endlessly about the case. Another slave ships himself in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia with just a canteen of water and a few biscuits. He bounces, slapstick fashion, inside the crate before successfully emerging into freedom.

The excellent three-person cast plays different characters in each of the vignettes. At times, they don white masks to indicate the presence of a white character.

Adanma Onyedike seamlessly moves from a desperate young mother to an older woman to an earthy Harriet Tubman. Children respond well to her petite size and high-energy charisma. Her characterizations communicate the terror and desperation of bondage. But more than that, she conveys an inextinguishable urge for freedom.

Stephen Seals has a slower, quieter style that contrasts nicely with Onyedike's performance. His innate dignity is well-suited to the stories of slaves who must endure unspeakable treatment. And when he is presented with an opportunity to exact revenge on his masters, it seems completely natural that his character would turn away from violence.

Wayne Ruotollo sings, plays guitar and occasionally assumes the role of a minor character in one of the stories. His presence adds musical cheerfulness to subject matter that is occasionally unsettling. One of the most uplifting scenes is the cast's performance of a song sung by escaped slaves in Alabama and Mississippi. The lyrics of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contain directions about the route they should travel along the Underground Railroad.

Larry Gard directs the show with enough light changes and zigzag movement to keep the attention of almost any child from wandering.

Though this play is about slavery and human oppression, it is joyful to watch. It's entirely appropriate as part of Richmond's ongoing "Acts of Faith" theater festival. Here, the faith is in the enduring power of the human spirit. S

"North Star Light: Pathways to Freedom" continues through March 11 at the Science Museum of Virginia. Tuesdays-Fridays at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $7. Call 864-1400.


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