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Then and now, Old State House is the stage for a moment in history

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Dale Place (center) rehearsing “Blood on the Snow” at the Old Statehouse in Boston.

By Terry Byrne Globe Correspondent 

As King James II and King Charles I of England look down from their portraits, a group of men are discussing how to respond to the previous day’s deadly attack on Boston citizens. The date is March 6, 1770, and the attack will go down in history as the Boston Massacre. For the next few weeks some of Boston’s finest actors — Ken Baltin, Daniel Berger-Jones, Bill Mootos, Dale Place, and Lewis Wheeler among them — will re-create that pivotal moment in the very room where the actual debate happened.

“Blood on the Snow,” a new work by local playwright Patrick Gabridge, imagines what went on in the Council Chamber in the Old State House, overlooking the actual spot where five colonists were killed by British troops.

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“This room is so rich in atmosphere; it adds another layer of drama to the play,” says Courtney O’Connor, who is directing “Blood on the Snow.” “Staging the play here transforms this from a static history lesson to a high-stakes debate between individuals with competing interests.”

Nathaniel Sheidley, historian and director of public history at the Bostonian Society, which operates the Old State House, says the play offers a way for visitors to transport themselves back to that moment when the colonists were on the precipice of war.

“Theater can be a powerful tool for understanding the human experience,” Sheidley says. “It can help people capture the meaning of a moment.”

On the day after the massacre, the citizens of Boston were angry and afraid. Mobs were gathering and resentment against the British soldiers garrisoned throughout the city was coming to a head. The men in attendance at the council meeting were trying to decide how best to defuse the situation.

“They were trying to figure out how to do what was right for the British Empire, whose subjects they were, and what was right for the citizens of Boston, who were their neighbors and friends,” says Sheidley.

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While there were lots of eyewitness accounts of the massacre, there was no transcript of the meeting that followed. That gave Gabridge the freedom to explore some of the personality conflicts that fed into the arguments. Among those depicted in the play: a council member whose son was inches away from one of the victims; another who is deeply conflicted about his divided loyalties; Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple, commander of the British troops in Boston; and John Hancock and Samuel Adams, who demand that the troops be withdrawn from the city.

Sheidley asked Gabridge to tell the story from the perspective of the acting governor of the colony, Thomas Hutchinson (played by Place), a man who has been cast as a villain in some historic accounts.

“Hutchinson cared deeply about the city of Boston, but he was also a firm believer in hierarchy, and his fellow councilors were asking him to break with that,” says Gabridge. “There was no obvious way to appease the demands of Hancock and Adams without committing treason.”

O’Connor says that since the meeting was not a calm, quiet conversation, she’s been using the long meeting table at the center of the room to help show the shifting alliances and power positions among the group.

“They were lobbying each other, trying to sway opinions,” says O’Connor. “In a 60-minute play the actors can communicate a lot through their body language and attitudes.”

That meeting, says Sheidley, is considered a critical moment in the colony’s fraying relationship with England. “It was a turbulent time,” says Gabridge. “Everyone knew everything was on the line, and these men were figuring it out as they went along.”

50 plays in 500 minutes

The 18th annual Boston Theater Marathon, which takes place Sunday in the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion, features 50 new 10-minute plays from Chuck Draghi, Israel Horovitz, Lila Rose Kaplan, Ronan Noone, Rick Park, Theresa Rebeck, Marissa Smith, and Lewis Wheeler, among others. The marathon will be preceded by “warm-up laps” of three staged readings of full-length plays by Kirsten Greenidge, Cliff Odle, and Walt McGough, Saturday afternoon in the Deane Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion. The marathon starts at noon on Sunday and runs until 10 p.m. Net proceeds benefit the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund. Tickets: $25 in advance, $35 at the door, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheaterscene.com.

Noir is the color

Two productions straight out of film noir are onstage at Boston area theaters. Stoneham Theatre offers the murder mystery classic “Laura,” by George Sklar and Vera Caspary. Popularized by the 1944 film, the story of a businesswoman who is murdered makes for a tension-filled drama when everyone becomes a suspect and no one expects the surprise twist. Through May 22. Tickets: $45-50, 781-279-2200, www.stonehamtheatre.org. At the Paramount Center Mainstage through May 14, ArtsEmerson presents the Latino Theater Company’s noir send-up “Premeditation.” Evelina Fernandez’s 90-minute play is a comic look at the frustration of longtime married couples and the lengths some women will go to regain the attention of their husbands. Tickets: $25-$65, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org.

Clemente immortalized for kids

Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, the first Latino inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, was a hero not only for his .317 lifetime batting average and 12 Golden Gloves, but also for his commitment to humanitarian work. Now the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in the South End is presenting New York theater company Teatro SEA’s “My Superhero, Roberto Clemente,” a bilingual musical for kids that tells why Clemente was admired both on and off the field.

With original music by Manuel Moran and Alejandro Zuleta, the show, which features puppetry, music, animation, and dance, tells a series of stories about Clemente’s generosity in the ballpark and his work with kids in Nicaragua. There’s one performance only, on Friday at 6:30 pm. Tickets: $11.19-$16.29, www.eventbrite.com.

BLOOD ON THE SNOW

Presented by the Bostonian Society and the National Park Service. At the Old State House, 206 Washington St., Boston, May 12-June 5. Tickets: $19.46-$27.37, 617-720-1713, www.bloodonthesnow.com


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.