An Anti-climatic “Appomattox”

In 2009, the Guthrie Theater celebrated the work of Tony Kushner, and the three-play series—The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures; Caroline, or Change; Tiny Kushner—was generally considered a wild success. So when the Guthrie announced a similar celebration, this time of playwright/screenwriter/film director Christopher Hampton, to kick off its 50th anniversary season, expectations were high. So far, the celebration has fallen short.

The Guthrie went big in advertising their 50th anniversary season, and for good reason: a half-century is a big deal. During that span, the Guthrie has made a name for itself nationally as well as internationally. Actors, playwrights, directors, choreographers, dramaturgs, and everyone else involved in the world of theater consider the venue among the best of the best. And most of the time, it is. But after seeing the first two installations of Hampton’s work, Tales from Hollywood, Hampton’s portrayal of Hollywood from the eyes of German emigrants during World War II and into the 1950s, and Appomattox, which seeks to draw parallels between the final days of the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement in 1965, I’m sad to say that right now, neither the Guthrie nor Hampton are living up to their reputations of greatness.

What I saw in Hampton’s adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, which the Guthrie staged last summer, and what I’ve seen so far in these plays don’t mesh. God of Carnage was sharp, witty, unexpected, and intense. Tales from Hollywood and Appomattox are longwinded, repetitive, disconnected, and drab. Hampton has been showered with awards, including four Tonys and the 1988 Acadamy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons. He’s a gifted playwright, screenwriter, and film director. But with these plays, Hampton has failed to capitalize on the potential housed within his scripts.

In Tales from Hollywood, the disconnect came from the play’s lack of forward motion, limited emotion, and overly long monologues. In Appomattox, the failure was in the abundance of unnecessary characters, storylines that never came full-circle, and a general lack of depth that sent the production into a downward spiral, eventually landing in a pit of boredom and frustration.

The general idea behind Appomattox, which Hampton wrote specifically for the Guthrie, is genius: linking together the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865 and the intensifying Civil Rights movement in February 1965. It’s the execution of this concept that falls flat.

So many opportunities for goose bump-raising “aha!” moments lie within this concept that when none of them come to fruition, it’s incredibly frustrating—especially when Hampton introduces characters, then ignores them, allowing them to become nothing more than clutter in an already busy plot.

One of the most unfortunate examples is our limited, seemingly random exposure to Lincoln (played by monotone Harry Groener). The focus of the first act is supposed to be General Lee’s surrender to General Grant. Obviously Lincoln played a part as Commander in Chief during the Civil War, but every scene that includes him inhibits rather than drives the action. The only good part about including Lincoln at all is the fact that Sally Wingert plays Mary Todd Lincoln; per usual, Wingert (who also plays Lady Bird Johnson in the second act) carries the scenes in which she appears, aided by Greta Oglesby (Elizabeth Keckley/Coretta Scott King).

As for the portrayal of President Johnson (also played by Groener, who suddenly becomes pleasantly entertaining, obviously taking delight in the chance to be as crude and crass as Johnson truly was), while Hampton has written the character accurately (if not a bit excessively), the roll is overused. The constant return to the Oval Office throughout the second act takes away from the action, which is in Alabama. Had Hampton kept the bulk of the scenes there, further developing the characters and actions that actually defined this turbulent time in America’s history, the play would have galloped rather than dragged. As it is, however, the audience is simply teased with the rare appearance of such figures as Jimmie Lee (Ernest Bentley), Cager Lee (Danny Robinson Clark), and Coretta Scott King. Failing to develop these characters in such a way where the audience would be able to sympathize and connect with them is a shame.

History—especially when reinterpreted for the stage and given all the liberties that implies—can be incredibly exciting and engaging. Had Appomattox focused tightly on those most interesting moments and drawn close parallels between the events of 1865 and 1965, this review would be totally different. However, due to Hampton’s insistence to stuff as many characters and storylines as possible into three hours, and the resulting shallowness and confusion that ensues, the production disappoints. The fact that the show is included in what had been touted as a glorious celebration of the biggest theater in the region makes it that much more of a letdown.

Through November 11
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.