note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Beverly Creasey
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe. Who would have imagined that elections back then were as contentious as they are now. Russell Lees’ knows his history and his new play, MONTICEL’ captures all the Sturm and Drang of the eighteenth century. Most everyone knows that Jefferson kept slaves and that he had children with a servant named Sally Hemings but who knew he was elected to office under circumstances which rival the Gore-Bush debacle.
Lees (who stirred up the waters with his play about Nixon) uses the deep-seated enmity between Adams and Jefferson as a backdrop for a study of betrayal and heartbreak…Not the romantic kind, but the kind that eats away at the soul. Vincent Siders gives a searing performance as Sally Hemings’ brother, James, a freed slave who is mysteriously drawn back to Virginia. For revenge? For money? For his sister’s sake?
Lees doesn’t tell us until Act II, using all of Act I to set the political stage. But when the second act rolls in, the play catches fire with high drama, suspense and tragedy. (Until then you have no idea where MONTICEL’ is going or even whose play it is. Had Lees hinted in Act I that lives were at stake, he would have had us earlier.)
MONTICEL’ is Siders’ play and he swaggers like a gunslinger in a Sergio Leone epic, his long cowboy duster making him look even taller than he is. Lees’ examines slavery from a different angle, not just both sides, but inside, where the canker festers and the heart ruptures.
Lees’ observations about presidential politics are quite funny, too, especially Steven Barkheimer’s brandy swilling journalist. When James amusedly asks the newsman if he always does [his writing] drunk, Barkheimer quips, “Have to.” And when Charles Weinstein, as a staunch Adams supporter, wants to belittle Jefferson’s abilities, he remarks that Americans “will never be ruled by a farmer.”
What a pleasure it is to see Weinstein back on the stage in Boston, making his Federalist wheeler-dealer a cryptic wit. Director Wesley Savick wisely nurtures the humor in the play. Birgit Huppuch makes Jefferson’s daughter a flighty, craven thing willing to do anything to win her father’s total devotion.
Sharifa Johnson Atkins has the impossible task of portraying Sally Hemings, a woman who endured the cruelty which came with her devotion to her master--seemingly willingly—but Lees’ point is that the institution of slavery breaks the will along with the back. Nigel Gore portrays Jefferson as a man torn, wanting to be decent, yet unable to give up the old ways. Nowhere is this more excruciatingly evident than in the post-whipping scene, when Jefferson carefully dresses Sally’s wounds.
Richard Chambers’ gorgeous muted set places white (unfinished) classical Greek columns beside a gray and white American flag, its stripes flowing down onto the floor and Haddon Kime’s gorgeous original ‘Americana’ music conjures up Henry Clay Work and Aaron Copland.