Through Feb. 8
511 Tenth Street NW
Seeing historical fiction performed in an historic venue like Ford’s Theatre adds a certain charm and gravitas to the work. And while the Ford’s museum-like experience is precise in presenting events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, its current offering, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Jefferson’s Garden,” brings together facts, near facts and plausible imaginings to tell a personal as well as political story of America’s past that resonates today.
Broadly based on the founding of the United States, Wertenbaker’s 2015 lively epic is an exploration of both the aspirations and failures of that achievement. The play opens with its nine-person chorus requesting dramatic license: “We have to ask you to be gender-blind, color-blind, age-blind, shape-blind, but in all other ways perceptive.” On opening night, Ford’s amenable audience enthusiastically went along for the ride.
There’s swift and engaging exposition. A Quaker family crosses the Atlantic in search of a peaceful life in the colonies. Along the way, despite the termagant matriarch’s protests, an educated German revolutionary joins their ranks. Under the patient patriarch’s guidance, the German adopts the family’s religion and trade (shoemaking), and then marries their daughter. They settle in Maryland.
Fast-forward about 20 years. The German’s wife has died. Their son Christian (out actor Christopher Dinolfo), a young idealist eager to join the revolution, decamps for Williamsburg in search of his hero Thomas Jefferson, free thinker and author of the Declaration of Independence. At the legendary Raleigh Tavern, he finds both revolutionary luminaries and romance with Susannah (Felicia Curry), a slave working as a server.
British-based playwright Wertenbaker presents the founding fathers’ idealistic and pragmatic approach to change, including the Three-Fifths Compromise which counted an African American as fraction of a person. American patriots aren’t romanticized: They kill a maimed and defenseless loyalist in cold blood. And the British-based playwright pokes fun at the southern slaveholding class, portraying its chattering women as particularly silly and mean-spirited. And her knowing and often repeated line about Virginia being one big family is quite funny — the first time.
Costumed in muted-colored breeches and dresses suggesting colonial times, most or some of the cast is always onstage, participating in the action or watching from the sidelines. Fanciful takes on more sumptuous and military attire and wigs hang visibly on racks.
Throughout there’s a bold theatricality energetically executed by actors, designers and director Nataki Garrett. Still, the tone is uneven. It’s best when neither too didactic nor going for laughs.
The cast is uniformly strong including an aristocratic Michael Hallings and Michael Kevin Darnall who displays wry humor.
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival (whose mission is to highlight both the scope of plays being written by women and the range of professional theater being produced in the D.C. region), “Jefferson’s Garden” serves up food for thought on what it means to be an American and whose lives matter.