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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
American Primitive (John and Abigail)
The Berkshire's theatrical elder statesman, ninety-year-old William Gibson (Two For the Seesaw and The Miracle Worker) has spent the last several years revisiting some of his plays. With the encouragement of Shakespeare & Company he turned his multi-character bio-drama about Golda Meir from a so-so Broadway show into a hit monologue that sold out at Shakespeare & Company and went on to become a triumph for Tova Feldshuh at an Off-Off- theater (see link to reviews of the Berkshire and NYC productions below).
Now another historical play, American Primitive (John and Abigail), mounted just once and not very successfully thirty-four years ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival is being given a new airing, again by BTF. With David McCullough's weighty biography of John Adams still selling briskly in both hard and soft covers and the BTF astutely scheduling the opening for a major American holiday, the timing for this second look couldn't be better.
Except for some tightening and the change in the title for the published edition (originally just John and Abigail ), the script is essentially the same -- but what a difference thirty-four years, fresh acting talent and a creative director can make! The young graduate acting students, all but one from the University of Connecticut where director Gary English heads the drama department, plus two local students playing the Adams children, have given Mr. Gibson's play a new life that could well result in its resurfacing elsewhere after this brief run ends.
While I didn't see the 1969 production it would seem to have had all the hallmarks of being a success: A big name director, Frank Langella; Anne Bancroft (who played the lead here as she had in Seesaw and Miracle Worker) and James Broderick as the leads. Its star power notwithstanding, the play was as the playwright good-humoredly explained at a Sunday matinee talkback "a mess." Mr.Gibson, a man with a wry wit and eyebrows that out-shag Andy Rooney's, recalled that it was so much and so inexplicably a mess that he Bancroft ended up having a big laugh about all the things that went wrong.
Gibson isn't laughing at the new American Primitive. Instead he marvels with obvious pleasure at how director English and Brian Wallace and Tahitba McKown have gotten the script just right. And so they have.
The play might be categorized as an epistolary drama since the text consists of excerpts from John and Abigail Adams' extensive correspondence during the Revolutionary War. The letters are put in sequence with additional text written by Gibson and delivered by a chorus of actors. The poetic form of the addenda, enhances the overall flavor and differentiates the authorial voice from John and Abigail's.
Unlike many epistolary plays in which actors are pretty much tethered to their writing desks, English has animated the correspondence into a lively play with dialogue and direct interaction. The set does have several writing desks with quill pens and ink wells and, except for a few scenes, John and Abigail are indeed physically far apart. However, under English's deft direction the letters are illustrated with real action and best of all, actually turn into dialogue so that the actors seem actually to be talking rather than writing to each other. When, after an all too brief reunion, Abigail writes that she is pregnant, the actress is dressed to be in about her eighth month and little John comments on how fat she is. As we hear the words from a letter announcing the pregnancy's culmination in a still birth we see Abigail attended by a midwife who carries the dead baby off stage.
Brian Wallace, though looking more like Napoleon than the future American President, gives an emotionally powerful performance rich with nuances of the public and private man. Tahitba McKown's Abigail is every bit his match as the wife who endures years of "life as a widow." This is no meek, stay-at-home lady, but a tough woman who grows stribger and wiser with the passing years. She also adds a welcome humorous touch of feminism with her pungent suggestions to her husband not to leave the rights of women out of the Declaration of Independence.
The chorus is well played by Jeremy Anglin, Addie Pearl Friend-Gray, Joseph B. Jung and Jill Michael (the latter singing a lovely little song towards the end) -- and extremely well used by the director to enhance the constant flow of movement that lifts this above a letter-based script into a full-featured drama.
The designers for the production have done terrific work in creating the various settings and the aura of the long and often close to being lost war. Daniel George has furnished the small stage with just enough Americana props to evokes the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, the Adams homestead in Braintree where the action takes place. All is evocatively lit by Tina Louise Jones with Nick Borisjuk's sound design ranging from softly musical to jump-out-of-your-seat wartime noises. A second tier with a map of the major battles being fought and an American and Tory soldier standing guard overarches the scenery as it does the lives of John and Abigail. Olivera Gajic's costumes add to the authentic and effective look and sound of this story of a war that really was fought for all the right reasons.
All in all, a worthy start for the Unicorn 2003 summer ahead.
Golda's Balcony-- Berkshires
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