I missed 1968 by about three months, so everything I know and think about the year is secondhand. Now, that happens to be a lot, as the year has loomed large over American culture for the past 44 years, from classic rock on the radio to endless documentaries about the 1960s. What does the History Theatre's 1968: The Year That Rocked the World bring that's fresh to the table? A mixed bag, really.
The show presents seven short plays stitched together by a timeline that takes us through the tumultuous 12 months. In the larger context of the play -- and a year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, along with more than 17,000 soldiers killed in Vietnam -- I could really care less that I Dream of Jeannie was a hit or that Johnny Carson was doing the same schtick in 1968 as when he retired in 1992. I know the events, take me into what made 1968 tick.
The best plays here do that. Kevin Kautzman's "Rosemary" shows the fallout of Kennedy's murder through the eyes of Rosemary Clooney, who was part of the campaign and was in the hotel the night he was shot. Karen Weber brings Clooney to life, using broad strokes to show us the pain that has enveloped her life, while Randy Schmeling brings a cool intensity to Kennedy.
Dominic Orlando provides some needed satiric bite with "John Mitchell's Private Moments," which examines the specter of Nixon throughout the year, as he rides the waves of chaos to resurrect his political career. Solid performances by E.J. Subkoviak and especially Paul de Cordova as Nixon help make proceedings more fun.
Fun isn't a word you could use for Kim Hines's "Smith and Carlos," as it wraps a beautiful monologue (delivered by Joe Nathan Thomas) about the impact the two Olympic athletes and their black-power salute had on African Americans throughout America with about 10 minutes of completely unwatchable drivel about a newscast from the performance. The meta trick does nothing for the piece, except to make the audience impatient for us to get back to the real drama.
Neither "Welcome Home" (about a vet's difficult adjustment) nor "Go Up Together" (the Memphis sanitation strike, and the killing of Martin Luther King Jr.) are completely satisfying, as neither really probe into fresh territory about the era. Actor M. Cochise Anderson was unable to make Tuesday evening's performance, so "The Corral," a somewhat controversial piece (it was nearly dropped from the program following protests) about the American Indian Movement, was not performed.
That leaves the finale, "Apollo 8," which really showcases where 1968 could have gone. Mat Smart twists the concept, showing us how that end-of-the-year event, when humans orbited the moon for the first time, sending back -- among other things -- the classic "Earthrise" photograph, had a greater impact long past 1968. Schmeling again gives a strong performance, playing the now middle-aged Garret, a modern-day astronaut who revisits his boyhood home on that Christmas Eve to see those moments that would have a long lasting impact on his life.
That's where 1968 works best, when we can feel the long tendrils of the era -- of Smith and Carlos's salute; of Nixon's backroom dealings that would eventually stop his presidency in its tracks; of the astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis while hundreds of thousands of miles from the Earth -- reaching to our lives.
IF YOU GO
1968: The Year That Rocked the World
Minnesota History Center 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul