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Taut drama encircles story of Jefferson
By Terry Byrne
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
Playwright Russell Lees has done something extraordinary with his play ``Monticel'.'' With a stroke of his pen, he's pulled together compelling characters, a potent political situation and the complicated motives of legendary historical figures. It all adds up to a world premiere that swirls in increasingly dramatic circles until the audience is left gasping at its conclusion.
At the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, Lees gets superb technical support from Richard Chambers' airy, open set, Haddon Kime's gentle sound design and Gail Astrid Buckley's gorgeous period costumes. But most crucial to ``Monticel's'' impact is Wesley Savick's taut direction of a cast that delivers performances to die for.
Lees is best known for ``Nixon's Nixon,'' which imagines the meeting between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the night Nixon resigned from the presidency. For ``Monticel','' he's turned the clock back to 1800, when bitter party squabbles threatened to overturn the presidential election results. Lees doesn't hesitate to make the contemporary connections - representatives from both parties offer political sound bites that sound frighteningly familiar.
But that's just icing on the cake. Lees' fundamental concern is his close-knit cast of characters. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson (Nigel Gore) was tied for votes in the electoral college with his vice presidential candidate, Aaron Burr. While awaiting results, he returns to his refuge of Monticello, where he lives with his married daughter Patsy Randolph (Birgit Huppuch) and his slaves, including Sally Hemings (Sharifa Johnson Atkins), with whom he's fathered a son.
At this pivotal moment, opposition party member Francis Williams (Charles Weinstein, in a terrifyingly spot-on performance) arrives to negotiate Jefferson's withdrawal from the election; journalist James Callendar (Steve Barkhimer) shows up seeking a reward for all the work he's done exposing Federalist scandals and helping Jefferson win the election; and a freed slave, Sally Hemings' brother James (Vincent E. Siders), returns, frustrated by the limitations of freedom.
Betrayal becomes the underlying theme of the play, with each character in turn either misusing another or feeling they've been misused. At the heart of the struggle is James, a man who deeply resents Jefferson's patronizing attitude, yet finds himself tied to the man who gave him his education and his freedom. Siders is magnificent in the role, combining humor with restlessness, anger with desperation.
When James tries to convince Sally to run away, she tells him Mr. Jefferson has promised to free her son when he's grown. ``Once you're grown, it's no good getting free,'' he says, and suddenly the true price of slavery becomes clear.
The particular beauty of ``Monticel' '' comes from Lees' subtle writing. Although his attempts at Pinteresque dialogue don't always work, his effort to get under the skins of both these characters and the audience does. You don't have to know anything about the time period to be inextricably drawn into the drama, but when you watch Callendar react and listen to James' description of a whipping, you'll find your own heart racing.
Revisiting a complicated Monticello
By Gina Perille, Boston Globe, 12/11/2003
It may seem that playwright Russell Lees has a presidential preoccupation. Last year, Boston audiences saw his comedy "Nixon's Nixon" at the Huntington Theatre. This month, his excellent play about Thomas Jefferson and the machinations at Monticello is onstage at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, proving that Lees is perfectly able to turn preoccupation and historical text into searing dramatic texture.
"Monticel' " is set in the days after the 1800 presidential election. Jefferson and fellow Republican Aaron Burr have received the same number of electoral votes, and the conflict might send the relatively new country into serious civil conflict. This historical struggle serves as a prickly backdrop to a much more intimate examination of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave at his Monticello estate. Sally's brother James figures prominently in the play, as do Jefferson's daughter Patsy, the smut-seeking newspaperman James Callender, and Federalist Party member Francis Williams, who visits Monticello in an effort to persuade Jefferson to cede victory to Burr.
Under the deft direction of Wesley Savick, the six-member ensemble brings an urgent freshness to this 200-year-old story. Vincent Siders is powerful and perplexing as James Hemings, giving a surprising tenderness to the character's deceitful energy as he schemes to take Sally away to Philadelphia (where a slim hope of emancipation is available). Birgit Huppuch is eerily oblivious as Jefferson's daughter, obsessed with removing Sally from the estate.
Lees mixes up the play's flow with a handful of direct addresses to the audience and the occasional anachronistic curveball. The monologues prove to be an intense (though not always necessary) means of sketching in details about various characters. While ambiguity can be risky, it has already proven to be one of the tenets of life at Monticello.
Richard Chambers's monochromatic set is as alluring as it is effective, but it falters when delivering the needed functional (and colorful) punch during the play's denouement. Otherwise, Chambers cleverly captures the essence of the often-remodeled Monticello, while Gail Astrid Buckley's warm-toned costumes radiate under the precise lights of Diana Kesselschmidt. Combined with music by Haddon Kime, the onstage world of "Monticel' " is complete and entirely intelligent.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
Issue Date: December 12 - 18, 2003
Jefferson’s closet
Monticel’ is inconsistent but compelling
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, was considered one of the most liberal and democratic men of his times, but as a gentleman of Virginia he kept slaves to run his beloved home, Monticello. Playwright Russell Lees, who took on a more recent president in his popular play Nixon’s Nixon, has seized upon this contradiction in Jefferson’s character as the pivotal point of his fascinating but flawed new drama Monticel’.
The play takes place at Monticello in 1800, soon after the Federalist party has lost that year’s election. Republican candidates Jefferson and Aaron Burr are locked in a tie for the presidency. The decision has been thrown to the House of Representatives, which seems to be at an impasse. But the political affairs are less important to Lees than are Jefferson the man and his relationships with his house slave Sally Hemings and her brother James, whom he freed five years earlier. For history buffs, the story of Sally Hemings will be familiar; recent DNA tests have suggested that at least one of her children was fathered by the president.
Monticel’ begins when James Hemings returns to Virginia after the life of a freed slave in Philadelphia proves less than a sojourn in the Promised Land. A prodigal on the run, plagued by conflicting feelings about his one-time master, he’s bent on making trouble for Jefferson and for the sister who seems content with her place in the mansion on the hill. James finds an ally in Patsy Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grown daughter, who is jealous of Sally’s position.
The tie between Jefferson and Sally Hemings is never discussed by the other characters; however, several of the most effective scenes are those between master and slave, or committed lovers, depending on your viewpoint. Lees suggests the former relation, with Jefferson speaking in a poetic and voyeuristic monologue of Sally in her shift dripping water down her arms at her toilette. "These are the things I possess, these are mine," he says. It’s as sexy a scene as we’ve had on our stages in a long time, proving that neither explicit pawing nor nudity is needed to convey heat.
Despite inconsistencies in Lees’s telling of the tale, particularly in mixing fact and speculation, the play has been given an impressive production. Wesley Savick directs it with an understanding that a playwright’s conjecture might be just a dream: he spreads the action out an imaginative set by Richard Chambers that evokes both time and history. Making brilliant use of every level of the small theater, Savick blocks the monologues and expository speeches of the actors on an elevated platform behind a huge, framed architectural drawing of Monticello. Chambers has painted the stage as an American flag colored in grays, whites, and blacks and has placed three enormous columns — one of them broken — at the side of the stage.
Vincent E. Siders gives a powerful portrayal of James Hemings that almost overwhelms the other actors. He towers over Nigel Gore’s Jefferson, even though the president was 6’2" in real life and credited with a presence of his own. Gore plays Jefferson too close to his period vest and ruffled shirt; if he’s threatened by Hemings and the volatile events that unfold, he never lets on. The performance is no match for the explosions from Siders. Birgit Huppuch as Patsy Randolph is silly, troubled, and ultimately villainous, in contrast with Sharifa Johnson Atkins’s dignified Sally. Steven Barkhimer as the slimy journalist James E. Callender, who disclosed the affair during Jefferson’s lifetime, and Charles Weinstein as Francis Williams, a Federalist congressman, complete the competent cast.
Lees has a compelling subject for his exploration of Jefferson the man versus Jefferson the legend, but he needs one more draft to clarify the politics. Don’t let that stop you from seeing the play now, though. I guarantee that the ending will teach you more than any textbook about the conditions of slavery and why it continues to echo in our collective psyche.
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