Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Thomas and Sally" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

A revised history lesson in three acts, the World Premiere of Thomas Bradshaw's "Thomas and Sally" attempts to bring to life Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings. The theatrical conceit is a dialogue between two contemporary, white college girls, one of whom is a direct descendant of Jefferson and Hemmings. The concept is intriguing and the staging fascinating, but there are several red flags that never stop waving. As a result, after a rousing opening in Act One, Act Two slows down and Act Three screeches to a revisionist halt, as the Jefferson descendant attempts to explain how all master-slave relationships weren't really that bad, and some of them were based on love.

If you can manage to push this aside, there is the issue of the dildos.

We are not naive. Just as symphony hall music directors have been complaining for years that no one will subscribe to the yearly series if it does not include Mozart and Beethoven, perhaps dildos and penises are what bring in today's crowds. The conversation between Karen (Rosie Hallett) and Simone (Ella Dershowitz), after Karen has used Simone's dildo and not returned it (and also not washed it off) is inexplicable in a story about Thomas Jefferson. And, as all playwrights understand, when you take the dildo out of the drawer in Act One you have to use it in Act Three. When that happened, every person in our row went, "Oh, Jesus."

And what a pity, because there is true brilliance here. William Hodgson as James Hemmings and Cameron Matthews as his brother Robert bring fire to their roles. L. Peter Callender is a dominant Jupiter, Robert Sicular gives an excellent reading to Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles and there were intriguing moments from Mark Anderson Phillips as Thomas and Tara Pacheco as Sally.

But not enough. Admittedly, chemistry between actors is not always achievable, but it would have helped explain the smarminess of a fifteen year old slave becoming the concubine of a forty-something aristocrat. It is not enough to have him declare his love and buy her a new dress.

We understand about power, and how the real Sally Hemmings could never have chosen to stay in France where she would be free but also pregnant and penniless, whereas returning to slavery in Virginia could bring relative comfort to her children. We too can choose, if we wish, to believe that the fifteen year old slave remained forever with the forty-ish aristocrat because she loved him. Of course it could have nothing to do with the fact that Jefferson promised to free her only after he was dead. 

On the other hand, the year is 2017. The audience laughed when hearing Jefferson's noble lines about American democracy spoken against the reality of Donald Trump. It is a blot on Jefferson's personal history that he was never able to practice what he preached about the evils of slavery. "Thomas and Sally" has decided none of that matters. Love and Mozart are the answer. 

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division feels that because "Thomas and Sally" is daring in concept, and assuming the running time will be cut as the run continues, and that they will put the dildos back in the drawer and keep them there (they can leave Mark Anderson Phillips's flag flying if this will help sell some tickets), we are awarding "Thomas and Sally" Three Stars but with a bauble of despair. We understand this brings the total ratings down below the Julie Andrews Line (see sidebar for explanation). There is much to like in Bradshaw's new play but an equal amount to fix.

"Thomas and Sally"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through October 22, 2017

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