Set in the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson’s Garden is the sweeping story of the immense struggle of our country’s founders, and the personal story of two people desperately seeking freedom. Christian, the Quaker son of a German immigrant, promises his family that, despite joining up to fight for his new country’s liberty, he will not use his musket to kill anyone. Susannah, a slave, attempts to escape her owners and fight for the British who promise her freedom.
A ship filled with cast-offs and families seeking religious freedom sits stalled on still waters as the passengers describe their dreams of a new land of freedom, of wiping their slates clean, of starting over, and reinventing themselves. How telling that a play entitled Jefferson’s Garden starts off with a boat filled with immigrants sailing to America.
A German youth, played beautifully by New York actor Michael Halling (who later portrays Jefferson), dreams of a new life and is taken in by a family of Quakers, learning their lifestyle, mannerisms, and shoemaking skills. He marries into the family and eventually becomes the trusted patriarch of his own adult children extolling unshakeable family values, caring for them with stern yet loving kindness. Christian, a spirited Christopher Dinolfo, is filled with his father’s early passion for truth and justice, and cuts ties with his pacifist family to join the American Revolution, determined to meet his hero Thomas Jefferson.
The call for Liberty is the battle cry and the play brings home the reality of the physical torment and pain to achieve it. Fighting for freedom entailed, then as now, the ultimate sacrifice –we feel that anguish with real characters in front of us shedding light on the history assignments we usually read on autopilot.
The pain is on all sides, playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker reminds us. For example, the sacrifices of the Brittish become vibrantly clear through the eyes of Harry, a “Red Coat” talking about his older brother who died on the frontier in the French Indian war. Granted, England was protecting its “territory,” but putting faces and family to those protecting the early settlers is touching. This is all while recognizing the slaughtering of Native Indigenous peoples to create this country. It’s complicated.
Dinolfo infuses Christian’s quest for national Liberty with urgency, passion and compassion. It’s his point of view that unfolds the national sense of self.
Susannah’s story is so much a core element that she’s featured on the show’s graphics (yes, that’s her, not Sally Hemmings as assumed). As Susannah, Felicia Curry captures the spirit of a servant enslaved woman longing for freedom. Susannah’s journey includes the little known story of runaway slaves who joined the British army which promised freedom, and hints at their horrible fate when caught, a precursor of the wretched recourse when black Union soldiers were captured by Confederates nearly 100 years later.
One of the many fun elements of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s script is getting behind the iconic names to get a sense of the actual men. The setup for Patrick Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech is a treasure, relaying how important the rhythm of words were in stirring up people’s emotions, to touch them to the core, to sway them to take a stand. The great George Washington listens to the snickers behind his back about not winning a single battle— before winning in Trenton and Yorktown, of course. Then, there’s Thomas Jefferson, played splendidly by Michael Halling, wrestling with his absolute desire to plant and nurture flowers while the country desperately needs his words. Wertenbaker lets us briefly tinker in the brain of a man who embodied so many contradictory concepts of freedom, country, family and love… and relationship with a slave.
The minimalist set consists of tables and chairs and an assortment of box crates that get pushed together for seating or standing soapbox style. In one scene, George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson do just that, stand above the masses making their pitches.
The outstanding cast includes metro favorites. Maggie Wilder is touching as Imogen, a Quaker woman with a name known from Shakespeare, and interestingly the name of a play going on right now. Kathryn Tkel, character actors Christopher Bloch and Thomas Keegan are all excellent to watch in their various roles. Michael Kevin Darnall plays the slave James Hemmings who has an oratory gift of recitation from perfect memory, an art form that sustained humanity for ages and fun to witness. The always wonderful Kimberly Gilbert plays a humble Quaker wife with the same aplomb that she does a southern belle.
closes February 8, 2018
Details and tickets
The director’s costuming choice for the southern ladies was a bit off-putting for me. The men were attired in beautifully tailored waistcoats and the spectacular “Red Coats” of the British army while the women’s accentuated bustle hip bustles and cascading under layers were over the top farcical. The rest of the costume choices worked beautifully blending the modern with sturdy shirts, woolen trousers, and the treasured leather boots that meant so much for troops to survive then and now.
The ingenious backdrop brings an open dimension to the set, designed by Milagros Ponce de León—it includes a huge lengthwise swatch opening from one end to the other implying something torn asunder. The image can be filled with blue sky, fenced barriers, even projections of written cursive text of the Declaration of Independence.
There are so many quips, breathtaking passages and observations that I could hear again and again. The program highlights one about freedom running through your fingertips when you try to grab hold of it. And one of my favorites – “It’s not the Revolution but the Constitution that will define America,” says the character James Madison as he tries to convince Jefferson to leave his treasured garden to help write it. A scene when slaves memorize “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” is a gem. The script is packed with pearls of historical insight.
The subtextual message is that we’re all part of constantly unfolding history, the effects are nestled deep within our DNA and it doesn’t take much for the fault lines to get triggered. Just when we think we’re beyond all that, swoosh, we look up and we’re reliving variations of thoughts and premises that we thought were handled centuries ago. They’re still here festering and blistering up into pleas that lives matter, Charlottesville, Charleston and more.
Wertenbaker was inspired by the violent multi-layered history of this country that she describes as “extraordinarily complex” filled with contradictions. The issues and impact of slavery are deeply embedded in the founding principles of the American Revolution, a battle for Freedom in the midst of slavery.
And yet, Wertenbaker exudes a sense of optimism when she speaks of the power of language to change, to extend hope and possibility.
The play’s structure will not fit everybody. The modern chorus explains what’s happening during the sprawling script, the scenes jerk across time and place with sketched characters, the color and gender-blind casting can be bewildering with no linear thread to follow. It’s a different storytelling style and pacing that take some getting used to. Also, there are many “coincidences” to theatrically accept, that people could find each other with the consistent regularity to pick up and progress the tale.
And yet, a bit of eye rolling and theatrical license aside, there are not many plays that I would read the script for a play reading group, see twice on subsequent evenings to catch the playwright’s discussion, and actually plan to see a third time. Jefferson’s Garden is one of those shows, it’s that packed, insightful, and powerful. Now is a perfect opportunity to catch a remarkable American premiere, part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, in the perfect historical setting at the Ford’s Theatre.
Jefferson’s Garden by Timberlake Wertenbaker . Directed by Nataki Garrett . Cast: Christopher Bloch, Felicia Curry, Michael Kevin Darnall, Christopher Dinolfo, Kimberly Gilbert, Michael Halling, Thomas Keegan, Kathryn Tkel, Maggie Wilder . Scenic Design–Milagros Ponce de León . Original Music and Sound Design– John Gromada . Costume Designer— Ivania Stack . Lighting Design— Laura Mroczkowski . Production Stage Manager—Brandon Prendergast . Hair and Make-up Design – Anne Nesmith . Dialects and Vocal – Rachel Hirshorn- Johnston . Produced by Fords’ Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.