A young, cheerful, sober Edgar Allen Poe, a student at the University of Virginia founded by Thomas Jefferson, visits Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia estate, on the last night of Jefferson’s life, and walks out a somber, alcoholic writer of macabre poems and short stories. That character arc is supposed to connect to the words of the Declaration of Independence advocating resistance to tyrannical government. Without arguing the merits of the conclusion, the play simply does not work.
“Monticello” is the creation of Chicago labor attorney, Thomas Geoghegan, author of six books on politics and labor law. It was directed by Anthony Irons, who has a long list of credits at the Goodman Theatre, Court Theatre, and Lookingglass Theatre. Its star, Marty Lodge, who played Jefferson, is an equity actor with respectable television and theater credits including a recent appearance in “Deathtrap” at the Drury Lane Theatre. Poe is played by Jeff Kurysz, a Steppenwolf grad who seems likeable enough. The historic figures portrayed are inherently full of drama. The pride and confidence at the dawn of the American experiment conflicts with Jefferson’s doubts 50 years later, not to mention current strife over white supremacy, reinstitution of Jim Crow, and armed neo-Nazism displayed on our streets. The production team is competent. The drama is inherent. The subject is relevant. It should have worked.
Unfortunately, “Monticello” suffers from multiple genre disorder. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a serious statement about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a revelation about Thomas Jefferson’s disappointment and equivocation over the idea that “all men are created equal,” a farce about the perversion of Enlightenment Era ideals, a dramatic piece about the personal suffering of slaves, or a slapstick comedy about a happy-go-lucky young man finding a new solemnity through alcohol and disappointment—absent any real incidents leading to his disappointment.
More unfortunate, the dialogue is stiff and unrealistic, and a lot of the acting is just plain bad, the actors appear distant from their characters. It’s possible that the stilted dialogue embarrassed the actors into behaving remote and subdued.
Marty Lodge’s Jefferson performance wasn’t poor per se. He recited his lines with the intellect of Jefferson, and he displayed the fading dignity one would expect of the character on his last day. He showed contradictions within Jefferson as a man proud of his ideas, but disenchanted with the outcome, and in failing in health. However, Lodge’s Jefferson seemed a little too spry too frequently for a man so ill, particularly on his entrances and in one bizarre, unfunny, pointless piece of physical comedy almost off stage. The most disappointing part of the Jefferson character was that he seemed more detached and amused than anything else as he explained himself to Poe. A slave of his household is sold to a cruel master to pay his debts, and the Jefferson character is smirking about retracting words that could ultimately free slaves.
Glenn Garrabrant’s Randolph was nothing more than a cartoon bad guy with nothing to do but march back and forth on stage. It was difficult to see what Lori McClain’s Martha Jefferson was feeling, or what she was doing there at all. Christopher Hand’s ghost of Toussaint L’Ouverture was strange and out of place, but the idea of his character’s effect on Jefferson’s post Declaration thinking was interesting, and one which Geoghegan might have taken more time exploring.
The performance of Anji White as Abby, the terrified slave just sold to the cruel Mr. Randolph, was one of the few bright spots in “Monticello.” White brings out the horror of Abby’s situation as a woman with nowhere to hide from certain beatings, and probable death because of the color of her skin. Had Abby been the protagonist, or had her horror been transmitted Poe, the character arc and conclusion might have made some sense.
Another bright spot of “Monticello” was the moving reading of a part of the Declaration of Independence by Taron Patton. Patton played Sally Hemings, but other than her recitation, which really had no connection to the Hemings character, she had little to do as Hemings. She answered no questions about the mystery surrounding the relationship of this historical figure and her master, Jefferson.
The costumes are nothing to speak of, but the set designed by Carl Ulaszek is particularly nice, simple but basically authentic looking with clean lines giving the feel of a federalist era home. The music is pleasant, and fits the feel of the set. The several sound cues all worked very well, so credit is due to Sound Designer, Devonte Washington, and Assistant Sound Designer, J’Qkwan Smith.
Despite all the specific problems with the dialogue, character arc, and premise separately, the main problem with “Monticello” is story structure. Nothing fits together. The comedy is out of place to the point of being inappropriate. Poe is the protagonist, but his story doesn’t mesh with the play’s lessons or conclusion. Jefferson alternately stands by and equivocates over his famous proclamation that “all men are created equal,” but it reveals little about the real man’s contradictions, or the idea of future political resistance. Hemings is little more than window dressing. Abby’s story is the most interesting, but it doesn’t connect to anything. Sadly, “Monticello” is not the much needed statement about our country. It isn’t even a good story.
“Monticello” runs every Thursday through Saturday night at 8 p.m., and at 3 p.m. on Sundays, until September 3, 2017 at St. Bonaventure Oratory, 1625 W. Diversey Avenue, Chicago.“Monticello” runs every Thursday through Saturday night at 8 p.m., and at 3 p.m. on Sundays, until September 3, 2017 at St. Bonaventure Oratory, 1625 W. Diversey Avenue, Chicago.
Photos by Marcus Davis