A siren screamed outside the Old State House on Wednesday night just as “Blood on the Snow’’ star Dale Place, portraying acting Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson on the day after the Boston Massacre in 1770, spoke the play’s chilling first words while looking out a second-floor window: “Who will wash away all that blood?’’
That noisy incursion from present-day Boston amid the performance of a play that takes place almost 250 years ago felt both anachronistic and strangely apt — partly because “Blood on the Snow’’ sustains a fire-alarm tension and urgency throughout, and partly because later Hutchinson repeatedly asks “Who rang the bells?,’’ in reference to the sounding of bells on the snowy previous night that brought crowds into the streets and led to a deadly confrontation with British troops.
Written by local playwright Patrick Gabridge and directed by Courtney O’Connor, this absorbing, 70-minute piece — which premiered last year and is being remounted now by The Bostonian Society — stands as a virtual model of how to write and stage a historical drama.
While we’re on the subject of staging: “Site-specific’’ performances are all the rage in theater these days, but there has possibly never been a production with more specificity to its site than “Blood on the Snow.’’ Gabridge’s play is being presented in the very same venue where the heated post-massacre debate it depicts actually transpired: the high-ceilinged Council Chamber of the Old State House (known back then as the Massachusetts Town House). The room where it happened, to borrow a phrase.
And indeed, as “Hamilton’’ has reminded us, to its profit and ours, there’s plenty of drama to be found in the early days of American history if you look beyond the wigs and waistcoats. The challenge is the same one that high school teachers face every day: to find a means to make history (no way around the next two words) come alive.
Playwright Gabridge and director O’Connor meet that challenge. Place’s Hutchinson and the other characters in “Blood on the Snow” come across as deeply flawed human beings confronted with hard choices while they grapple with an emergency, not figures intoning lines cribbed from a dusty chronicle of the American Revolution. At every moment we feel the high stakes for the men gathered around a long table covered with a green tablecloth in the Council Chamber, where portraits of British monarchs hang on the wall.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Hutchinson has assembled members of the Governor’s Council to discuss a hugely consequential question: Should he order the removal of British troops from Boston? The already rebellious city has been infuriated by the killing of four colonists (another would eventually die of his wounds) and the wounding of half a dozen others by British soldiers.
Evacuation of the British regiments is the unequivocal demand presented to Hutchinson by Samuel Adams (a pugnacious Craig Ciampa), acting as spokesman (along with John Hancock, played by Matt Ryan) for the Boston Town Meeting. Enunciating a statement from the meeting members, who are waiting for Hutchinson’s decision, Adams warns the governor that “if they are not removed immediately, the most terrible consequences can be expected.’’
It’s compelling to watch Place’s Hutchinson weigh those potential consequences against his sense of duty and loyalty to the crown. One of this fine actor’s gifts is the way he can embody gravitas without pomposity: His Hutchinson is no cartoon villain. Place conveys the sense that there might actually be a decent man inside that starchy exterior, struggling to get out.
Among those who verbally spar with Hutchinson is Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, commander of the occupying regiments, played by Daniel Berger-Jones with a brooding intensity. Also on hand are such reliable veterans of the Boston theater scene as Lewis D. Wheeler, portraying council member Samuel Dexter; Ken Baltin as Andrew Oliver, provincial secretary and Hutchinson’s brother-in-law; Bill Mootos as council member Royall Tyler; and Jerry Goodwin as provincial treasurer Harrison Gray. Trinidad Ramkissoon makes a brief but impactful appearance as Andrew, a slave who witnessed the massacre.
When discussion in the Council Chamber turns to the hostility among local citizens that military occupation by foreign powers tends to engender, you may find yourself thinking of the war in Iraq. And of course everyone in the audience, seated on either side of the long table, knows that the Boston Massacre was a pivotal event in what would soon become the American Revolution.
But “Blood on the Snow’’ doesn’t pull you out of the action with self-conscious, winking allusions to our own time or to all the events that would follow the killings on a snowy evening in March 1770. The play unfolds not as a series of canned speeches between loyalists to Britain and leaders of the Sons of Liberty, but rather as a clash of interests, backgrounds, principles, viewpoints, and personalities that seems to be occurring for the first time as we watch and listen.
BLOOD ON THE SNOW
Play by Patrick Gabridge. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by The Bostonian Society. At Old State House, Boston, through Aug. 20. Tickets $30, 617-720-1713, ext. 120, www.bloodonthesnow.comDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.