Appomattox loses sight of victory
Looking back over my notes for Appomattox, the world premiere that serves as the centerpiece of the Guthrie Theater's Christopher Hampton celebration, one of the last things I wrote was "What is this show about?" followed by a pair of underlines. If I could have managed it in the dark, I might have added a few stars around the statement, and maybe highlighted it as well.
Take any five minutes of Hampton's ambitious deconstruction of American political and social change and race relations and you'll find intriguing, even compelling ideas. As a whole, however, Appomattox is a failure. A well-crafted and -acted one, to be sure, but a failure nonetheless.
The simple fact is that Hampton has bitten off far more than a single show can chew. Each act is set a century apart — in 1865, at the tail end of the Civil War and the weeks before Lincoln's assassination, and in 1965, as the civil rights movement enters a new phase. The huge cast plays dozens of historical characters, including presidents, politicians, generals, and other social leaders.
Let's take Act One, which opens with Lincoln's second inauguration. Lincoln and eventual assassin John Wilkes Booth appear to be floating above the stage, seen amid a collage of images from the Civil War. It's a striking moment that sets the action into its place in time. Then again, while Lincoln is an important figure in the act — and well played by Harry Groener — the story is most effective when focused on Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee. The two generals, after years of battle, have finally reached the final days of the war.
Their relationship goes back much further than the scope of Appomattox, and while the implications are well played, being able to experience those earlier moments would have really brought out the senses of loss and heartbreak felt by both characters in the end. It's like we are watching the third act of a play without seeing the first two. The performances of Mark Benninghofen and Philip Kerr as Grant and Lee carry the day, bringing out the contrasts between the two characters.
If the first act feels like the endgame of a larger, unseen work, the second act is just a mess searching for focus. Is it about the ground-level civil rights fight? The efforts of Martin Luther King? The political work done by the delightfully profane LBJ? The story lurches from moment to moment, introducing us to a dizzying array of politicians and players without ever settling on a core story.
The story focuses on the Selma-to-Montgomery march in spring 1965. Sparked by the efforts of the Alabama government to prevent African-Americans from voting and intensified by the violence and murder that befell the protestors, the march was an instrumental moment in the American civil rights movement.
We watch most of it unfold, however, in Lyndon Johnson's comfortable office, where he wheels, deals, and negotiates a solution that will guarantee voting rights for everyone. The scenes work individually in part because they are intriguing insights into the clockwork behind politics.
There are also plenty of strong performances, led by Groener as another president. While his Lincoln came off as a somewhat shy and stumbling man driven by his convictions and worn down by a seemingly endless war, Johnson is a natural politician who uses his acumen — including his legendary coarseness — to get the desired solution. His own doubts come through in unexpected places, as in a few moments with Lady Bird (the always excellent Sally Wingert, who also plays Mary Todd Lincoln).
Shawn Hamilton channels all of MLK's regal grace, both while making speeches (using one of the great American orators as your guide certainly helps) and filling in the details of the broad strokes of the script.
Since Hampton has chosen to tell so much story, it's hard for any of the characters — apart from Johnson, who dominates the second act — to really have more than a few brushstrokes to define them. Appomattox is often entertaining — the work of the cast, director David Esbjornson, and the creative team guarantee that — but the lack of focus makes it hard to take anything away from the experience apart from frustration.
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