Review: “Appomattox” at the Guthrie

Set first in 1865, then in 1965, Appomattox seeks to shed new light on questions of freedom in America. It doesn’t.

Simon Benarroch

 

What: “Appomattox”

Who: Writer Christopher Hampton, director David Esbjornson

When: Now through Nov. 11

Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St.

Price: $40-$58

 

With his new play, “Appomattox,” writer Christopher Hampton aims to compare two racially turbulent periods in American history and examine how the reality of freedom has evolved, or failed to evolve for non-whites in the years since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 at the Appomattox Court House.

 The Guthrie Theater is showing “Appomattox” under the direction of David Esbjornson as a celebration of Hampton’s extensive work in play writing.

 “Appomattox” errs dangerously on being a directionless history. The first act is set in 1865 toward the end of the American Civil War; the second act is set in 1965 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Each act has a smart, if not particularly original take on times in American history when race was a leading question. The problem is they’re essentially self-contained; not ignorant of each other but disinterested.

The debut performance was so full of awkward gaps in dialogue that it became hard to tell the dramatic pauses from dropped lines. Harry Groener had so many of these moments playing Lincoln that, coupled with his high-pitched cackling delivery, the man widely considered to be the greatest leader in American history came off as a half-senile Rumpelstiltskin.

Hampton reworked much of the dialogue from historical documents and journals. While this lends to the play’s historical clout, this method of writing often made for stuffy and unnatural scenes.

One exception was Mark Benninghofen’s performance as Ulysses S. Grant. His hungover swagger brings the Civil War general’s dry wit to life. Besides Grant, all the characters of the first act are obnoxious caricatures. The Civil War portion contained very little in the way of historical nuance or intrigue.

One might choose to overlook this, at first assuming the act’s purpose wasn’t to be an incisive look at the events of 1865 or to challenge our crystallized images of great men, but to simply be held onto throughout the second half of the play, at the end of which Hampton’s grand argument would sink in.

Unfortunately, this never happens. If Hampton’s purpose was to drive home the point that slavery did not, for all intents and purposes, end with the Emancipation Proclamation, he shouldn’t have chosen to depict a period in history in which Civil Rights leaders make the exact same point.

Between John F. Kennedy’s June 11 Civil Rights Address, Lyndon B. Johnson’s “And We Shall Overcome” speech­ and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “How Long, Not Long” speech, all of which are presented verbatim, the second act packed enough dialogue to drive Hampton’s argument home all by itself.

There was a chance for the two halves to be united in the final scene, when the man who killed an unarmed black man in Alabama, James Bonard Fowler, is finally imprisoned after 45 years.

The scene opens with him sitting alone in a cell, but he is soon joined by Edgar Ray Killen, a lifer and Fowler’s old Klan buddy. He’s wheeled in by a black guard, whom Killen impotently orders to leave. The two do some catching up, and soon the scene shifts to a monologue of Killen wistfully remembering his activist-murdering youth.

It’s a disconcerting scene, but again, it is completely out of dramatic meter with what preceded it. It felt like a clumsy final swing in a play that lacked nothing in production quality but lacked everything in focus.

If “Appomattox” really is more than a sum of disparate, mediocre parts, then it would take quite an explanation to make sense of it all. After three hours of guessing, the audience might just be a bit winded.