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Stages | Terry Byrne

Civil discourse in a divided country: a true story

The documentary “Best of Enemies” (above) inspired “Buckley/Vidal: Brilliant & Vicious.”Magnolia Pictures

The spectacle of a political debate devolving into name-calling is practically business as usual in this election cycle, but in 1968 two combatants took a higher road. A series of televised debates pitted two respected intellectuals against each other: on the right was William F. Buckley Jr., founder and editor of the conservative National Review; on the left, novelist, essayist, and playwright Gore Vidal. The debates ran throughout the turbulent summer of 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War protests, racial turmoil, and economic unrest.

“What’s striking about these debates is that their arguments and responses are so thoughtful and compelling,” says Jeff Withers, who portrays Buckley in “Buckley/Vidal: Brilliant & Vicious,” at Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet June 27 and 28.

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“Both of these men knew how to bring people along with them in their argument,” says Withers, who is paired with Robert Kropf as Vidal. “Even if you don’t agree with their point of view, they are so articulate that you find yourself saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.’”

Withers, who is returning to Harbor Stage after appearing in the premiere of his sister Brenda’s “The Ding Dongs,” says he was cast because he resembles Buckley.

“I’ve been watching ‘Firing Line’ episodes,” he says, referring to the TV show Buckley hosted for 33 years. “I’m not going to do an impersonation, but I thought I’d get some of his mannerisms down. What I’m struck by is how much Buckley enjoys the audience. He’s supremely self-confident and feeds off the energy of the audience. It’s easy to see how he and Vidal could get on each other’s nerves.”

Although the 1968 debates between Buckley and Vidal started cordially, the tenor became increasingly acrimonious, culminating in a moment at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago when the two men nearly came to blows.

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Brenda Withers, who is editing the transcripts of the debate down to a theater-friendly 60 minutes or so, says last year’s documentary film about the men and the debates, “Best of Enemies,” inspired the stage production.

“When we saw the documentary,” she says, “we were struck by the parallels to today’s issues. Although nearly 50 years have passed, we are confronting racism, police brutality, homophobia, and a general atmosphere of anger and resentment.”

At the same time, Withers says, the tenor of the debate is so different from today.

“Both of these men knew they were entertaining,” she says, “and it’s always clear they dislike each other, but they listen to each other and respond thoughtfully rather than just ignoring the question reciting their talking points.”

Although the reading is only scheduled for two nights, Withers says based on the response, the Harbor Stage team hopes to present it again.

“We’ve already gotten inquiries from other theaters,” she says. “It’s definitely the right time, at least to show people the possibility of raising the level of discourse.”

Sister act

Just after McCaela Donovan closed the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Dogfight,” her sister Kelley Curran made her Boston-area debut at Nora Theatre Company’s production of Bedlam’s “Twelfth Night” and “What You Will.”

“I didn’t get to see McCaela in ‘Dogfight’ because we were rehearsing in New York,” says Curran, “but she’s already seen ‘Twelfth Night.’ ”

The two sisters — Donovan is older at 33, while Curran is 31 — are on a hot streak, with Elliot Norton Award-winning Donovan (“A Little Night Music”) in high demand in Boston at both the large resident theater companies, including the Huntington and the American Repertory Theater, as well as SpeakEasy, Gloucester Stage, New Rep, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and Bridge Rep. Curran calls New York home, but she caught this critic’s attention with two scene-stealing roles at Shakespeare & Company last season (Adriana in “A Comedy of Errors” and Ellen Tree in “Red Velvet”) before her impressive Bedlam debut here.

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“Preparing for ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘What You Will’ was a little hectic,” says Curran, “because I was fitting in rehearsals while performing in another show, but [director] Eric Tucker really took the time to reshape ‘What You Will’ to fit my strengths and personality.”

The sisters grew up near Albany, N.Y. Curran studied at Fordham University and had straight theater training, but is often called upon to sing in shows. Donovan, on the other hand, went to a conservatory program at Ithaca College and has more musical training, but often performs in straight plays.

“Kelley and I have never auditioned for the same role and probably wouldn’t,” says Donovan. “We are very different in terms of our energies. Even though I’m older, she’s much more elegant and refined and I’m the goofy one, always messing around. However, I love that we are both in this field. I call her all the time and get her opinion on different things and vice versa.”

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“McCaela and I are very lucky to be sustaining ourselves in this work,” says Curran. “We’re more supportive than competitive.”

Says Donovan, “We’re probably more competitive over who gets my mother’s attention than we are over who gets a part in a show.”

Buckley/Vidal: Brilliant & ViciouS

Presented by Harbor Stage Company, Wellfleet, June 27 and 28. Tckets: $10, 508-349-6800, www.harborstage.org


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