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January 12, 1977 (PBS)
William Gillette (play)
A televised version of the 1976 Phoenix Repertory Company production, which aired on PBS' Great Performances.
This 1895 romantic wartime thriller by William Gillette tells the tale of a Union spy, Captain Thorne (John Lithgow), working to seize
control of the telegraph office in Richmond, Virginia in 1864. Posing as a wounded Confederate captain named Thorne, the
spy's false orders to a Confederate Army Commander raise the suspicions of a southern agent, who uses a local girl, Edith
Varney (Meryl Streep), as his reluctant accomplice to set a trap.
Cast & Characters
Hal Holbrook (Host), Lenny Baker (Henry Dumont), Frederick Coffin (Lt. Maxwell), Alice Drummond (Mrs. Varney), Joe Grifasi
(Cpl. Matson), David Harris (Jonas), Mary Beth Hurt (Caroline Mitford), Jeffrey Jones (Sgt. Wilson), Charles Kimbrough (Benton
Arrelsford), John Lithgow (Capt. Thorne), Arthur Miller (Messenger B), Moultrie Patten (Cavalry orderly), Jonathan Penzner (Lt.
Allison), Roy Poole (Maj. Gen. Randolph), Rex Robbins (Lt. Foray), Hansford Rowe (Messenger A), Don Scardino (Wilfred Varney),
Meryl Streep (Edith Varney), Louise Stubbs (Martha), Stuart Warmflash (Pvt. Eddinger)
Before its 1976 revival by the Phoenix Theater, William Gillette's "Secret Service" hadn't had a Broadway production since 1915. As the New York Times reviewed its
televised version, "another 60 years might pass safely without urgent demand for a second revival. The historical spy drama is an embarrassing reminder of how
impossibly silly and melodramatic much of American theater was before Eugene O'Neill". "Secret Service", which became a successful acting vehicle for Gillette in the
pivotal role of Captain Thorne, is set in the besieged Richmond, Va., of 1864. Thorne, a Yankee posing as a Confederate officer, is working on the "hazardous schemes"
of the Union Army's Secret Service. But also, in his plot-thickening way, he has fallen in love with Edith Varney, daughter of a Confederate general and an unregenerate
Southern-belle stereotype. Benton Arrelsford, one of Edith's rejected suitors, suspects Thorne of perfidity, but his mustache-twirling incompetence keeps the play
plodding along for four tedious acts.
As the Times continues, The Phoenix company tries mightily to be fair to the play, to mount a genuine period piece without undue condescension or camp. But "Secret
Service" is beyond the kindness of friends. Half the characters spend most of their time on convenient off-stage verandas, waiting for their entrance cues. The plot
has more turns than a corps de ballet in frenzied heat. And the Southern characters resemble a pack of blithering idiots, gnashing their teeth when not batting their
eyelashes. The Phoenix has added some period songs, which are played and sung nicely enough by the cast, but really do little more than prolong the agony of the evening.
And the actors, dripping a range of drawls from southern New Jersey to upper Mississippi, are as straightforward as possible, though the play forces the, tone to a
territory somewhere between "Mary Hartman" and "10 Nights in a Barroom." John Lithgow. Meryl Streep, Marybeth Hurt and Don Scardino are particularly sympathetic. The
production was directed by Daniel Freudenberger and Peter Levin.
"Secret Service" is Meryl Streep's television debut with its PBS premiere on January 12.