Ok, folks, this is a good news, bad news situation. The good news is Jefferson’s Garden, the new play going on at Ford’s Theatre, tackles big ideas without seeking easy answers. The bad news? Hard, complicated answers can come with just as many cliches.
Two for the price of one right off the bat: First, the actors, who mostly play multiple roles, keep breaking the fourth wall to remind us we’re seeing a play — as if we could forget with those hideous costumes — but I’m getting ahead of myself. “While you were enjoying your intermission drinks,” they tell us after the break, “we’ve been enduring years of war.” No need to spell it out, guys, we get it! They even have the nerve to invoke the muses at the opener.
And second, the story is told through a clumsy mix of no-name characters mingling with major historical figures. We’ll probably never evolve beyond the Forrest Gump method of depicting nonfiction events, but I’m sick of our Everyman just so happening to show up in time for the biggest conversations of the day. Why hello, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason! Don’t let me intrude — go about your business!
Jefferson’s Garden (the title is a metaphor for America, get it? Get it?!) concerns a Quaker shoemaker from 1770s Maryland named Christian (Christopher Dinolfo) who gets swept up in revolutionary fervor and abandons his family’s peaceful ways to travel to Williamsburg (which, for the record, does not have a view of the Blue Ridge). There he rubs elbows with and cuts leather boots for a couple of Founding Fathers, while also falling for a tavern slave named Susannah (Felicia Curry), who reminds him and us of how unequal American ideas of liberty have always been.
If there’s a scene in this play that doesn’t include the word “freedom,” I must have missed it. The dialogue is about as subtle as a Redcoat cannonball.
Christian’s Quaker affirmation of pacifism lasts all the way until the Battle of Great Bridge, so about eight months into an eight-year war. But his real troubles begin once he starts seeking Susannah in the post-war new nation, where the British are gone but the new oppressors are just getting started. The hypocrisy of a man who wrote that all men are created equal while owning several himself is not a new subject, but Jefferson’s Garden, as written by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Nataki Garrett, is to be commended for its philosophical examinations. And Christian’s arc may actually surprise you — like I said, no easy answers in this entry in the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival.
The cast of nine (including, like Garrett, several veterans of An Octoroon, a racial reexamination drama that takes fewer prisoners) holds little back while leaping from Charlottesville to Paris to Philadelphia, though the this-is-what-we-had-time-for set does them no favors. Ditto the costumes, which look like they’re made of plastic and rubber.
But the real stumbling block is that dialogue. Neither metaphors nor plainspeak make any time for nuance. It’s so on-the-nose you may get a nosebleed.
“My life has been a quest for freedom, but somehow I missed it along the way,” one character says in the final scene. Give me a freakin’ break.
Jefferson’s Garden runs from January 19 through February 8