Jefferson in Virginia
The fascinating part of Twilight at Monticello: An Evening with Thomas Jefferson is not the hour-and-45-minute monologue that serves as the main attraction but rather the short question-and-answer period that follows in which actor-creator J.D. Sutton answers questions about the show's subject. He does this first in character as the octogenarian Thomas Jefferson, then -- after removing his shoulder-length white wig -- as Jefferson's assistant, who responds to queries with modern-day elements. (Read: DNA testing and Sally Hemings.) One audience member asked T.J. if he had thought about putting his performance on tape. Jefferson answered that it had never occurred to him to put his speech on a cloth tape. (His assistant later commented that a videotape project may be in the cards.)
One the one hand, the experience of sitting through Sutton's monologue is akin to a visit to Colonial Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts where costumed characters explain how they make candles from beeswax or, in the case of Jefferson, come to possess a seat at the Second Continental Congress. You can talk back to the performer and get some clarification on, say, why Jefferson never freed his slaves during his lifetime. (Sutton, an unabashed apologist for the third president, says it's because the slaves would have been at risk for capture and resale to other owners. Apparently Jefferson's reasoning had nothing to do with the impossibility of running his plantation without slaves.)
On the other hand, the National Park Service and real-life-history sites such as Williamsburg have moved light years ahead of Sutton when it comes to accommodating the attention spans and political complexity of the MTV era. Colonial Williamsburg, for example, strayed from the safe path of never offending anyone a few years ago by staging a slave auction. Meant to explain how African Americans kept themselves occupied in the Eighteenth Century, it displeased many. Other historical sites are being adventurous in other ways. At the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I once enjoyed a tour in which the guide pointed out the very spot on which Mrs. Longfellow backed into a gas lamp, caught on fire, and burned to death. Living history, indeed.
Sutton, an Orlando-based actor who also wrote the Twilight at Monticello monologue, aims to bring to life the Jefferson who can be reconstructed from his writings. The problem with putting together a person from parts, as Doctor Frankenstein can surely tell us, is that you may end up with all the limbs, but you can't guarantee you'll capture the personality. This Jefferson tends to speak in ponderous statements culled from his letters and documents. We all relish the poetry of the Declaration of Independence, but do we want to sit through two hours of its language? Sutton isn't a supple-enough actor to infuse the familiar phrases of Jefferson's best-known writing with fresh energy or to give us a sense of what spending an hour with the statesman might actually have been like.
Sutton's historical fidelity has a certain charm (who wouldn't like to ask old Tom a question or two?) but it severely limits his character to those aspects of his life Jefferson himself wrote down. For example Sutton makes use of Jefferson's journals on gardening, which are rich with the day-to-day detail in ways that his writing about, say, the founding of the University of Virginia are not. But instead of the genius who dotted the Virginia landscape with choice samples of Palladian architecture and created a model of liberal-arts education, Sutton's audiences are given a man who likes to plant beans.
The Jefferson who emerges in Twilight at Monticello is not Jefferson the architect, the amateur musician, or the inventor, much less the Jefferson who probably had an affair with Sally Hemings, a slave he owned who was also the half sister of his then-deceased wife. Nowhere does the monologue attack the contradictions inherent in the life of a man who tacitly condoned slavery yet penned the very documents that would allow future generations to give birth to both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights movement. Indeed far from grasping the contradictions of Jefferson's life, Twilight at Monticello doesn't have much drama in it at all.
The play's conceit seems to be that audience members are evening visitors at Jefferson's Charlottesville home, though no attempt is made to build a story from beginning to climax to end. Sutton has no statement to make or, as far as I can tell, any particular point of view about Jefferson other than that we should find him interesting. At the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, Jerry Waxman directs Sutton on Floyd Mitchell's low-rent set depicting the interior of Monticello. Amy Hungerford-Sutton's costume design of breeches, waistcoat, and wig, seem astoundingly authentic, at least to this Virginian who spent four years as an undergrad at Jefferson's alma mater in Williamsburg.
Jefferson is a perennial subject of fascination, a multifaceted personality whose biography continues to give off new interpretations of our national history. He's been depicted in any number of dramas from the popular Broadway musical 1776 to the more recent film Jefferson in Paris, but each generation remakes him in its own image, and each biography is supplanted by the next.
As for Twilight at Monticello, I suspect there's a better theater piece waiting for someone who wants to take liberties with what we know about the man and make a stronger statement. The fact that so many people have been intrigued by the recent DNA testing connecting Jefferson to Hemings (and thus to African Americans) suggests we are ready to explore and perhaps embrace a Jefferson who is brilliant and visionary if not entirely perfect.
Actor Bill Hindman, who died July 8 of complications following surgery for lung cancer, played a barley-beguiled Irishman, numerous old coots, and one hell of a Scrooge in Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and that was in the past year alone. A fixture on the South Florida rialto, Hindman brought a mature presence and the kind of inventiveness to his characters that can only be refined through hard work, complex imagination, and a keen physical intelligence.
Hindman, who was 76 years old, was often cast in elder statesmen roles (Clarence Darrow, Hemingway, Scrooge) because he was indeed the elder statesman of South Florida theater. But I also enjoyed him in parts that allowed him to show his characters' less dignified sides. The role that enchanted me most, because of the devilishness Hindman brought to it, was that of Simm, the lecherous, good-ol'-boy horse-trader in Sam Shepherd's Simpatico, which the actor appeared in last summer at the Florida Shakespeare Theatre (now the GableStage).
One pithy scene turned on Hindman's hilarious exploitation of his character's wiliness, particularly while he tried to hoodwink a young woman. "You'd be able to have me groveling at your feet," Simm said after the woman arrived in his office in a brand-new Kentucky Derby outfit. Then (as Hindman got down on his knees, cracking his trademark alligator grin), he asked, "Would you like to see me grovel?"
Another role I frequently saw Hindman in -- the one that he seemed to relish most -- was that of father to Miami Herald theater critic Christine Dolen and grandfather to her son Sean. Most South Floridian theatergoers, however, knew Hindman as Papa Hemingway in John DeGroot's one-man show that the actor performed at three different venues from 1987 through 1990, and for which he picked up a Carbonell Award for best actor. (He also played the basketball coach in the 1981 movie Porky's.)
He was scheduled to play Clarence Darrow in Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story, a new John Logan play due to open at the New Theater next month. Instead, all of South Florida's stages are darker, quieter, and emptier without him.
J.D. Sutton gives a history lesson in monologue form as Thomas Jefferson
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