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On stage: reliving historic turning points. Howard Fast's `Citizen Tom Paine'

First we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the drum, way up beyond the red velvet seats at the back of the Eisenhower Theater. Then the drummer boy marches down the aisle, beating out a tattoo for the star behind him: Richard Thomas, wearing frock coat and leather breeches for the title role in ``Citizen Tom Paine.'' This Citizen Paine in Thoreau's words ``marches to a different drummer'' literally - one who follows him up on the stage and accompanies him throughout the two-act play. For the next two hours Paine shows us why his radical ideas on democracy and revolution reverberated through an America that was then only an English colony. And why the drumbeat was echoed in Louis XVI's France.

What could have been a staged history lesson, dry as parchment, emerges instead as a provocative and lively evening in the theater because of Mr. Thomas's fiery portrayal of Paine.

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You can believe that Thomas's Citizen Paine is the gadfly patriot of the American Revolution, who wrote, ``These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.''

In this bicentennial year of the United States Constitution it seems especially appropriate that Kennedy Center in the nation's capital should be staging Howard Fast's searing new play about Paine.

Mr. Fast, who had once belonged to the Communist Party, was blacklisted as a writer after he took the Fifth Amendment during the McCarthy anticommunist hearings. He later quit the party.

The Paine play was based on Fast's 1940s novel about the American revolutionary hero. It was first performed at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theater Festival in 1985. The current Philadelphia Company production is presented here by the Kennedy Center and American National Theater Association.

Richard Thomas plays Paine like a star-spangled tiger, ferocious about freedom and ready to savage anyone who stands in his way, from King George III to France's revolutionary despot, Robespierre. Paine is shown as a tough, cocky rabblerousing pamphleteer with a cockney accent (he was born in England). He manages to prod Ben Franklin, on a London visit, into writing a letter that will help him get to America, ``the only place in the world a man can breathe.'' Jobless and desperate in Philadelphia, Paine taunts a reluctant printer into publishing his writings, which become an immediate and profitable success. The career that began with ``Common Sense,'' in which he wrote that ``fear is always the weapon of the oppressor,'' went on to include ``The American Crisis,'' ``The Rights of Man,'' and ``The Age of Reason.''

In portraying Paine, Thomas is so far from the John-Boy role in ``The Waltons'' that he seems a different actor. This is a fierce, high-octane performance like the one director Peter Sellars got from him in ``The Count of Monte Cristo.'' At the same time, Fast's dialogue allows him to establish a real intimacy with the audience, talking directly to it, sharing his anguish and his slicing humor.

James Simpson directs this production, as he did the one in Williamstown, and he has, like Sellars, tapped an exciting extra dimension in this actor. Simpson is a young director who bears watching. His recent off Broadway production of Shakespeare's ``The Merchant of Venice,'' starring Sigourney Weaver as Portia, was innovative and often great fun. This production, apart from Thomas's star turn, is a thin one, which doesn't quite hold the stage in a theater as large as the Eisenhower. It needs a smaller theater.

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The rest of the cast does not act at the level of Thomas's bravura performance, although Zach Grenier, who plays four roles, is compelling as Napoleon and John Adams.

Nicholas Kepros, too, stands out in his dual roles as a foxy Ben Franklin and as Paine's cellmate in the French revolution.

A special drumroll of credit goes to Michael Sgouros, who plays Paine's faithful drummer with such style.

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