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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Minnesota's lost political hero lives again in Wellstone!

Also see Ed's reviews of Gypsy, Lost In Yonkers and Aint' Misbehavin'

Senator Paul Wellstone died in an airplane crash four years ago this month, while campaigning for a third term in the Senate; yet on History Theatre's stage, he is very much alive and pumping folks full of refreshing idealism in History Theatre's engaging production of Wellstone!.

Playwright Mark Rosenwinkel's carefully researched script spans Wellstone's life from a 19-year-old in North Carolina to his untimely death in Minnesota. The script is sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and always authentic-feeling as it delivers vignettes from Wellstone's life, linked by Larry Long's songs. Together, vignettes and songs add up to a seamless whole that gives actor Kris Nelson the matter he needs to infuse Wellstone! with irresistible dynamism.

Nelson, a slight man, not only looks like Wellstone, but he captures the senator's warmth, vulnerability and generosity of spirit as an eloquent, passionate and populist politician, a man who makes decisions upon what is ethical and what is good for common people.

Nelson speaks Wellstone's words with such compelling zeal that the sympathetic opening night crowd joined in protest chants and responded verbally to speeches from the senate floor. "We have no real national security until we invest in the health, education and beauty of our children," says Nelson's Wellstone. "We all do better when we all do better;" "Become the change; you are the change."

Nelson's tour de force performance is well supported by Amy McDonald, who convinces as likeable and capable Sheila Wellstone and in many other smaller roles. Philip Callen plays multiple roles so well that, with a subtle shift in tone of voice, accent or body language I could tell readily whether he was Wellstone's father, the president of Carleton College, Rudy Perpich, Rudy Boschwitz, the leader of the senate etc.

I have one beef with director Steve Barberio about Callen's role as Norm Coleman; Callen plays him mockingly for a cheap titter from the audience. This decision is not in the spirit of Wellstone. Better and more powerful to let the script's words convey Coleman's opportunistic pragmatism that contrasts so hauntingly with Wellstone's ideals.

Theresa Chandler plays the acoustic guitar on stage, singing Long's touching songs between vignettes, sometimes walking among the characters and always muting her instrument's volume as a new scene takes over.

Marcus Dilliard washes his simple and elegant set in green, the color of Wellstone's aged campaign bus, and his light design works with the music to shift the focus between scenes.

For anyone who cared about Paul and Sheila Wellstone and all that they stood for, Wellstone! is irresistible and a must-see. For less progressive folks, it's fine acting and plain good theater.

Wellstone! October 5 November 5, 2006. Thursdays 7:30 p,m., Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m., Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. call for morning shows. History Theatre, 245, Cedar Avenue, St. Paul. Tickets: $25 - $32. Call 651-292-4323 or www.Historytheatre.com.


- Elizabeth Weir



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