Appomattox at the Guthrie Theater

October 5, 2012
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Shawn Hamilton in Appomattox. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Civil War.  A crucible struggle.  An informed citizen must study the war and understand that it wasn’t the Good Guys vs. the Bad Guys, a war fought simply to end the vicious institution of slavery.  The questions raised – and fought over – remain pertinent.  What kind of country do we inhabit?  What are our working values?  What does American democracy really mean?  What kind of government do we want?

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was, arguably, even more significant.  Americans rose as one and shouted to the world that the dream could no longer be deferred.  The time when we would be judged by “the content of [our] character” (to quote Martin Luther King) and not by our skin color had emphatically arrived.  That too many citizens were systematically deprived of their rights was not a “Negro problem” or a “Southern problem” (I’m quoting Lyndon Johnson now); it was “an American problem”.

Christopher Hampton‘s sprawling and breath-takingly ambitious Appomattox (at the Guthrie, through Nov 11) is the second play (of three) in the Guthrie’s Hampton celebration (see HWTS’s review of his Tales From Hollywood).  Appomattox addresses these massive subjects; indeed, the three and a half hour play in no way stints.  Act One concerns the last feverish month of the Civil War: Robert E. Lee and the South’s furious will to survive; U.S. Grant’s willingness to expend thousands of lives in order to prevent them; the pointless burning of Richmond; Abraham Lincoln’s troubling premonitions of death, etc.  Act Two is set in the Oval Office and in the South a hundred years later with the Civil Rights Movement in full flush.  LBJ is trying to decide to how much prominence the Voting Rights Act will have even as he drags the nation into the horror of Viet Nam.  In the South the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leads a movement with thrilling momentum and genuine power.

Appomattox provides moment after moment of utter pleasure.  Lincoln’s nightmares are beautifully staged with effective projections and the vastly talented Sally Wingert‘s  potent reading of Mary Todd Lincoln.  Shawn Hamilton plays T. Morris Chester, a journalist ensconced in the Virginia Senate Room with verve and compelling energy (Hamilton also excels as MLK in Act Two).  As Lincoln and later as LBJ Harry Groener is compulsively watchable.  He captures LBJ’s new-found passion perfectly; his rendering of the famous “we shall overcome” speech is spot-on, very moving.  LBJ’s belittling of the verminous George Wallace (Mark Boyett) is priceless.  The newly freed slaves in Richmond crowding around “Father Abraham” thanking him for their emancipation has bittersweet power; we know what horrors of oppression shortly await them.  The play is filled with such treasures.  Hampton is a writer of great power.

But I also found Appomattox episodic and highly expositional.  It abounds with “As you know”s and “I remember the time you”s.  Too many scenes are entirely informational: this happened.  The playwright sketches the material in then quickly moves on.  One senses a checklist.  Grant’s alcoholism, check.   His reputation as a squanderer of lives, check.  Mary Lincoln’s debts, check.  MLK’s philandering, LBJ’s crudeness, check.  The size and scope of the play mean that too much – indeed, most – of the material is cursory and shallow.  Civil Rights and the Civil War?  Even in three and half hours one barely scratches the surface.

The informed citizen will want to delve much deeper into this history than Appomattox permits.  Read James MacPherson’s Battle Cry Of Freedom, Taylor Branch’s multi-volume biography of MLK, Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ.  Rent Henry Hampton (no relation to the playwright)’s magisterial documentary Eyes On The Prize, Ken Burns’s terrific The Civil War.  This material will enrich your life beyond belief.

For more info on John Olive please visit his website.

 

 

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