by EMILY MEISLER, guest reviewer
Appomattox, a new play by Christopher Hampton and commissioned by the Guthrie Theater, presents two distinct snapshots of American history: April 1865, the end of the Civil War; and April 1965, after the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson and just before the passage of President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act. While these segments of American history present a variety of moments ripe for possible artistic interpretation, such as the struggles of newly freed slaves in the South, Hampton instead covers well-trodden territory without any new insight or interpretation. The result is a superficial reenactment of a facile American history textbook lacking any conflict or drama. Particularly disturbing is Hampton’s choice to valorize the generic white male experience while simultaneously claiming to portray the experiences of black Americans.
At the heart of the trouble is plot construction and narrative, as the audience knows how the stories will end. This prior knowledge doesn’t necessarily set up a play for failure, but Hampton seems to have forgotten the central rule of drama: conflict. If nothing else, the characters must have urgency; they must need to say their lines more than anything else in the world. Almost every line in Appomattox felt unnecessary, like a throwaway, something that could be said or not said. In the first act, Harry Groener makes a valiant effort to breathe life into Lincoln’s lines, but neither he nor the other actors can find immediacy in Hampton’s prose, so instead the actors focus on secondary details like vocal tics or affected speech. Hampton allows only the opposing military leaders in the first act any depth or characterization, and Mark Benninghofen performs Ulysses S. Grant’s discomfort towards his authority with nuance.
In the second act, Hampton’s text forces Groener (as President Johnson) into uneasy comic territory. While much of the audience laughed at his delivery of Johnson’s crass jokes, the comedy felt troubled at best, an attempt to humanize the President as he escalated the Vietnam conflict and ordered the deaths of more Vietnamese and American citizens. At no point did Hampton or director David Esbjornson acknowledge the gravity of Johnson’s actions.
What takes this play beyond the simply bad into the insulting is Hampton’s appropriation of black American stories into a narrative about white people. The majority of the exceptionally bloated second act takes place inside the White House. It’s a shame to see figures like Martin Luther King, Jr and Coretta Scott King marginalized to secondary characters, forced to genuflect to Johnson’s supposed heroism. The real emotional heft during the Kings’ scenes go to white supporters of their cause, an irony which Hampton attempts to address with one line muttered under a peripheral character’s breath. What a shame that the only exception to the obvious discomfort the actors felt with the stilted characterization was Greta Oglesby, a brilliant performer whose brief scenes as Elizabeth Keckley and Coretta Scott King were a joy to watch. The nearly-perfect recent Penumbra Theatre Company production of The Amen Corner, also at the Guthrie, displayed the phenomenal range of Oglesby’s talent. Seeing Appomattox only a few months after The Amen Corner made the difference in quality even more unsettling, and Hampton’s impudence in creating such flat characterizations of black Americans even more infuriating.
In its entirety, the production is cohesive but does not feel finished. The spare, almost childlike background photos used in Thomas Lynch’s set design, combined with Esbjornson’s flashbulb-like transitions, only further enhance the animatronic quality of the production. Equally childlike is the fight choreography, so obviously staged and fake that I first wondered if the actors had made a mistake. During a tragic scene in the second act, the trivialization of the violence was so thoughtless, it disrespected the memory of civil rights activists. These clear missteps, combined with the script’s desperate need for focus and clarity (the play runs three hours, ten minutes with a brief intermission), give the impression of a playwright whose work was not properly edited or questioned. Even the most celebrated writers need appropriate feedback. While I can only guess what happened or didn’t happen during the rehearsal process, this production reveals need for a strong revision process. No writer so flippant in the telling of America’s racial history should be given such a large venue from which to share his shallow perspective.
Appomattox by Christopher Hampton. At the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street Minneapolis, MN 55415, September 29 – November 11, 2012 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Tickets $34-64, information at 612-377-2224 or http://www.guthrietheater.org/.
Emily Meisler teaches high school English at Saint Paul Academy and Summit School, where she especially enjoys discussing contemporary American literature or Shakespeare. A graduate of Carleton College, Emily majored in Theater Arts with a focus in directing. The first play she saw was a production by the Paperbag Players at Symphony Space in her hometown of New York City; since then, she dreams of directing a play with a cardboard set.