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What is happening?

There was Revolution in the air." – Bob Dylan
The two most established theatrical institutions in the Twin Cities are trumpeting revolution. Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is reviving “Les Miserables,” which portrays conditions surrounding the 1832 Revolution in Paris (see review, page 15), and The Guthrie is reviving “1776,” a musical drama about the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Granted, both plays are well-worn by this time, but the productions pack so much energy and passion into them that they seem remarkably fresh and as current as today's headlines.

The Continental Congress convened for only one purpose: to ratify a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. For a year they sat and they debated and they debated and they debated. Finally, in June of 1776, during a hot summer in Philadelphia, they determined to call for a vote and settle it one way or another. John Adams had made many more enemies among the delegates than friends. He was a brash and uncompromising radical. He knew he couldn't write the Declaration and have any hope of it passing. He and Benjamin Franklin gave the task to Thomas Jefferson who, although reluctant and distracted by his new bride, seemed the most likely candidate. It would take a unanimous vote, and the delegates seemed to be split down the middle. There were hard votes to be won over, and a Southerner might be the best spokesman for the Cause.

In the second act the plot thickens. We come down to the final count. North and South Carolina will not sign because of the remarks against slavery. Franklin, Jefferson and Adams refuse to take out the condemnation, and the day's session ends with little hope that a bridge could be built across the differences. Finally, when the three are alone, beaten and depressed, it is Franklin, the realist, who says they must take out the phrase condemning slavery.

Condemnation of slavery became (in the words of Langston Hughes) a dream deferred. It was not 50 years after Independence before abolitionists began the drive for emancipation. It was not 75 years before the most bloody civil war in history tested that resolve. When the battle lines were being drawn, suffragists, who had long supported the abolition of slavery, were told their cause would have to wait until the slavery question was settled. Their hope became their dream deferred.

The acting in the production is superb. Peter Michael Goetz is completely believable as Franklin. Michael Thomas Holmes brings life and passion to John Adams and Tyson Forbes is wonderful and larger than life as Thomas Jefferson.
But for local fans, it was a genuine treat to see two of the most significant dramatic moments carried off by home-boys.

The New York Colony had abstained through all the balloting. The two delegates played cards to amuse themselves. But when a courier says that the British have landed on Long Island, that Lewis Morris's land has been pillaged and that his sons have joined Washington's army, they begin to get caught up in the momentum. Vern Sutton as Lewis Morris, with fresh understanding of the gravity of the moment, casts his vote for independence. When he does, in that moment, we see what it means to "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

If there is an evil villain in the piece it is Edward Rutledge, the representative from South Carolina. It is his defense of slavery, "our peculiar institution," that momentarily stops the momentum toward ratification. Bradley Greenwald is familiar to fans of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. He is always thrilling and always in great voice, but as Rutledge when he condemns the New England colonies for their hypocrisy—they would build, finance and pilot the slave ships and pretend their hands were clean—he surpasses even himself, and the cast (and we) cry out, "Enough." He points a dagger at our heart and shows us our iniquity.
“1776” runs through August 26 at The Guthrie. It's a wonderful production. The tension and the triumph brought tears to my eyes. It makes you believe once again in the American Revolution. It will make you patriotic. It might even make you a revolutionary.


 

 

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