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Because of my former position as Associate Producer/Theater Critic at Metromix.com and my current position as a critic/consultant for the Theatre Roundtable of Central Ohio, I have the unique pleasure of seeing lots of community and professional theater in the fine state of Ohio for free. So why not share the love with my readers at Queer Corner? Every week the Local Theater Spotlight will feature a review from a show currently running in Central Ohio. Because, let’s be honest, we queers love us a night at the “theatre!”

Whitney Thomas Eads and Brant Jones in "Sleeper" by Available Light Theatre

Available Light Theatre has become known for their cultural and historical deconstructions (“Killadelphia,” “How to Stay Human,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “33 Variations“), this time they present a little bit of both with “Sleeper,” David Ian Lee’s controversial post-9/11 portrayal of America’s perception and misconceptions of terrorism, showing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s Van Fleet Theater, 549 Franklin Ave., through Feb. 25.

Lee’s script left much to be desired but director Matt Slaybaugh’s stellar staging and casting propels the long-winded drama to impressive heights.

“Sleeper” takes the audience on a whirlwind ride though the personal lives of more than a dozen characters in the early 2000s, leading up to the kidnapping, torture and eventual death of an American doctor by terrorists in Afghanistan.

Bobby Guffin (Brant Jones) excessively travels for work as an excuse to continue ignoring his wife, Teri Guffin (Whitney Thomas Eads), instead of dealing with the loss of their young child, while rising conservative television personality Rachel Anderson (Melissa Muguruza Weaver) ignores her husband and daughter for her career and justifies it with a higher duty to bring down the Democratic Party. These are the play’s two main conflicts. Once Bobby is kidnapped the second act takes a sharp turn from dramatic to political as the Afghan brothers (Jordan Fehr and Drew Eberly) passionately argue dogma, while Teri (a civilian-turned-political-pundit as a result of her husband’s disappearance thrusting her into the national spotlight) and Rachel spend an explosive episode  of “American Agenda” arguing patriotism.

Jordan Fehr and Drew Eberly in "Sleeper" by Available Light Theatre

Witty one-liners, stark opinions and charged quick-fire exchanges are the fruit of “Sleeper’s” appeal, and is also where the actors are superb. Fehr and Eberly steal much of the second act and were definitely the night’s highlight for me. Fehr perfectly captures the inner struggles between his duty to his country and his personal conviction, while Eberly takes on the burden of Lee’s most controversial point, putting a sympathetic face on a terrorist.

Jones and Eads accurately ride the wave of emotions affiliated with a dysfunctional marriage. Weaver takes the cake as the show’s antagonist, a rabid Anne Coulter/Bill O’Reilly hybrid, her second act battle with Eads had much of the audience on the edge of their seats. And Franklin Grace, Dan Welsh, Stefan Langer, Sarah Gehring are a kind of “Fantastic Four,” scurrying about, quick-changing through several different roles.

As mentioned the play is a bit on the long side, just creaking past 2.5 hours with a 10 minute intermission. Lee spends much of the play unnecessarily in exposition to make his controversial points clear. And a crowded cast also doesn’t help. But Slaybaugh’s swift direction keeps the play moving from character to character and country to country. The set (Dave Wallingford) and lighting (Jarod Wilson) designs also help elevate the production, literally. A bed is placed on a platform center stage during act one where Eads spends much of her time while much of the action swirls around it, until an impressive first act demolition, signifying Bobby’s capture, turns it into “an undisclosed location.”

Ultimately “Sleeper” does have its faults but with Available Light at the helm it’s still a night of theater that can’t be missed.

“Sleeper” by Available Light Theatre runs through Feb. 25 in the Van Fleet Theater at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Tickets are on AVLT’s popular Pay What You Want System. Visit www.avltheatre.com for more information.

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