Saturday, October 6, 2012

Appomattox on Opening Night

A huge, powerful play by Christopher Hampton opened at the Guthrie Theatre last night and I approached the moment with as much excitement as I’ve ever felt in my life. Perhaps I was too excited and expecting too much.
by Charlie Leck

Disclaimer: I am not, by any means, a theatre critic. Loving stage plays as I do is not enough credential to review them with any expertise. So, this review must be seen and read more as the meandering first impressions of mere member of a very complex and varied audience of interested spectators – a quiet, unimportant voice in a big crowd.

A group of us who attended the opening of Appomattox at the Guthrie Theatre this weekend, were struggling to find the right words as we left the theater and drove home. We knew we had seen something very powerful. The playwright, Christopher Hampton, had done a masterful job in providing extraordinary dialogue for the stage actors, telling two astonishing, historic stories separated in time by 100 years. And, the play included a powerful ending that seemed to provide an annoying and potent comment that wasn’t quite blatant enough to catch.

All in all, I think it was a great and important moment in American theater; yet, something was wrong and out of synch with it all.

And, it bothered me. The wrong things were minute, but they added up as the play went along. The direction seemed awkward. Transitions between scenes were stiff and the openings of some scenes were awkward. Dialogue was occasionally muffled and actors stuttered where stuttering was not called for.

I don’t usually attend opening night performances. Is this what they are like? Is it natural to see and hear such miscues and bobbles? Will first-aid be performed and patches used here and there?

Or, was the story too bold, too encompassing and too powerful for any acting company? Is this work, perhaps, more suited to the screen, where scenes can be reworked and sharpened and dialogue corrected in take after take?

General Robert E. Lee (Philip Kerr) was done perfectly and drew me into believability and into the historic moment. General Ulysses S. Grant (Mark Benninghofen), though, was missing something and he steered me away from believability at the very same moments and in the very scenes where General Lee grasped me. Abraham Lincoln (Harry Groener) disappointed me and Lyndon Baines Johnson (Harry Groener) captured and convinced me. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Shawn Hamilton) brought me to tears and Viola Liuzzo (Angela Pierce) drew me back to the level of high school drama productions. Lady Bird Johnson (Sally Wingert) was Lady Bird alive in front of me. Corretta Scott King (Greta Oglesby) was awkwardly out of place. J. Edgar Hoover (Brian Reddy) caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up and sizzle and that felt terrible but as it should have been.

Frederick Douglas (Joe Nathan Thomas) seemed to have come back from history and death to stand before us.

Senator Richard Russell (Philip Kerr) enamored me as he chatted about serious matters in the Oval Office with President Johnson. Russell’s comments about Vietnam and our misguided policies there drew me again and deeply into one of the ugliest moments of United States history. To me, it was, perhaps, the evening’s most extraordinary moment – to be allowed into the private conversation between two such powerful men of American political history.

Edgar Ray Killen (Richard Ooms)? Well, I don’t know. Such an evil man! Such ignorance! Perhaps the scene had been played correctly. I just don’t know. It was awkward; yet it made me want to vomit and scream out. Tears filled my eyes and rage my heart as Killen, sitting in his wheelchair, confesses in a long soliloquy (because James Bonard Fowler seems not to listen)…

“Most everyone thinks well of me; I been a jackleg preacher all my life. I pastored churches all over Neshoba County for more than fifty years. But I’m like you, you know, I’m a good soldier. I follow orders. Anyways, back in the summer of nineteen hundred and sixty-four, which was a hot one, I get a call from the Imperial Wizard and he issues me with an order number four, you understand what I’m saying? He tells me there’s these three troublemakers come down from up North, a Commie and a Jewboy and a nigger, Civil Rights workers, scum of the earth; and he says he wants their rear ends tore up.
“So I call my guys, I just have to say two words: payday’s comin’. First thing, I had the deputies arrest them and throw them in Neshoba Conty jail, so I could buy me a little time, enough to figure out a plan. I had the big dozer moved over to the dam and working; and late in the evening we released them. They beat up on the nigger a little too heavy with them chains, which wasn’t too smart, because he was the driver, but turned out he was still able to drive. They cut them off out on Highway 19 and rode their asses down to Rock Cut Road. Wayne Roberts took the Jew out of the patrol car. You know what he said? Wayne asked him if he was a niggerlover and he said, ‘Sir, I know just how you feel.’ How do you like that? Wayne shot him, then he executed the Commie. Jimmy Jordan was pissed. He said: ‘You didn’t leave me nothing but a nigger.’ Then he shot him anyway and said, ‘Well, at least I killed me a nigger.’ They took the bodies over to the dam and dug ‘em in with the dozer, down where the sun don’t shine, in fifteen feet of Mississippi clay. They’d never have been found, ‘cept some greedy fuck squealed to the FBI for cash.
“A job well done, wouldn’t you say? We didn’t get no more trouble out of them.
“It was Father’s Day, as I recall. But that’s OK. The nigger was the only one with children.”

I’ve walked along Rock Cut Road a couple of times – right to the spot where they dragged those boys out of the car and shot ‘em.

“Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?”
                               [James Weldon Johnson, 1900]

I had arrived in Mississippi, the first time, as a civil rights volunteer, on the day after Father’s Day in ’64. There were reports that the three boys had gone missing. It was a hot summer in Mississippi.

I’ve gone back a couple of times since then to observe the anniversary of that Father’s Day in ’64, and we gather at Rock Cut Road and sing the sacred hymn of the movement: We Shall Overcome! I was back there again, standing beside the ditch on the scruffy, stony back road in Mississippi when the play came to an end. Tears filled my eyes and hatred for Edgar Ray Killen filled my heart.

And then it was over and I could only think that something that was supposed to soar and penetrate deeply into the mind and heart had missed – only by a mere fraction, but it had missed.

Actors – good, bold and talented actors – seemed to miss the mark by fractions. Timing seemed so close to true, but one could tell it was not settled, accurate and where it was supposed or meant to be.

Is this opening night? Does it commonly happen? Can it be fixed – cured? Or is it misdirection? Or is the dialogue too immense and powerful for any theater company? Does the truth hurt too much to see it before one’s eyes? Is it too, too painful to be reminded of it again and again?

I wouldn’t have missed Appomattox for anything in the world – not anything – but, I swear, something was missing – wrong – off target last evening and I cringed occasionally when the strident note hung there too long, screaming at me

I wrote five or six weeks ago on this blog about the first reading of the play by the proposed actors. I was honored to be in attendance for that reading and I was deeply moved by it. If you wish, you can read that blog, History Alive, here.

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