Pity the playwright whose Revolutionary War play must compete with Hamilton.
Just three weeks after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s juggernaut musical opened off-Broadway in New York, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s own 18th century epic premiered in suburban London. Both 2015 shows devote their opening acts to the uprising against King George II, while after intermission, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and company get busy forming a more perfect union and debating how to ensure domestic tranquility.
In Hamilton, that means rapping cabinet meetings. The long, drawn out discussions about federalism in Jefferson’s Garden are much less catchy and occasionally get interrupted by female characters prattling on about the flowers.
Jefferson’s Garden is the latest commissioned drama or new(ish) play that Ford’s has produced for an audience that includes the least sophisticated of Washington theatergoers: Tourists. In 2016, Ford’s landed a Broadway tryout for the rollicking, moving 9/11 musical Come From Away. More often, the plays that debut there dive deeper into American history, sometimes featuring Mr. Lincoln onstage. You always learn something when you go to Ford’s, but you are not always entertained.
Wertenbaker began researching Jefferson’s Garden in 2005, when she was a visiting professor at Georgetown University. The original production scored a rave review in The Guardian, but she revised the script during the rehearsals at Ford’s, aiming to make the play more resonant for American audiences. Perhaps that’s where things got bungled, or perhaps—and this is great but so unfair—Hamilton has raised America’s standards for social studies plays.
Jefferson’s Garden runs for two-and-a-half hours but feels longer, as substantial exposition and competing sideplots vie for brain space. A cast of nine actors plays more than two dozen roles. For the most part, telling the characters apart isn’t a problem, but parsing their complicated backstories is.
The unwieldy play begins with some cheeky direct addresses to the audience. “We have to ask you to be color blind, gender blind, shape blind, etc., but in all other ways, very perceptive,” one actor quips. Then the narrative shifts to a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean circa 1740, where an English Quaker family befriends a fleeing German scholar with a fiery temper. The rest of the play follows those fictional family members as their lives become intertwined with the real-life Founding Fathers.
Director Nataki Garrett, whose local credits include the antebellum comedy An Octoroon at Woolly Mammoth, does her best to keep the show moving. Actors make all their costume changes onstage; Ivania Stack did a bang-up job designing the linen base outfits for the actors and the contrasting crinkly overcoats and bustled skirts they don when, for example, Jefferson travels to Paris.
The best performances come from Maggie Wilder and Katherine Tkel, who reunite after starring in An Octoroon. In Jefferson’s Garden, Tkel takes on the role of Sally Hemmings while Wilder plays Imogen, a Quaker girl who for falls for a charismatic British soldier played by Thomas Keegan. Keegan doubles as Madison and Wilder shows even greater range by hollering for liberty as Patrick Henry. Kimberly Gilbert completes the girl power trio as both Imogen’s grandmother and the manipulative matriarch Nelly Rose Madison.
It’s problematic that a young doctor named Christian (Christopher Dinolfo), the son of those immigrants who met on the ship, is supposed to be the central figure in Jefferson’s Garden. The plot is too meandering, and Dinolfo doesn’t play his part with much gravitas. The Jefferson confidante falls for a slave (Felicia Curry) serving cured ham at the Raleigh Tavern. (Actually, that whole scenario seems like an advertisement for Colonial Williamsburg, a possible stop on some tourists’ agendas.)
Christian’s storyline ends with a melodramatic estranged son/baby mama reunion that seems more appropriate for the set of Maury than a historical drama. If only at that point Gilbert, Tkel, and Wilder could bust loose with some of the Schuyler sisters’ moxie, burn the bad boy’s letters, and try to ban slavery. Work!
Whoops. There come the Hamilton comparisons again. That musical arrives for its first Kennedy Center engagement in June, and in all likelihood, will keep circling back to D.C., just like Wicked and The Book of Mormon, but better. By all means, playwrights should keep writing shows that seek to illuminate early U.S. history. They should just know—as Wertenbaker could not—that those plays will now be held to a very high standard.
To Feb. 8 at 511 10th St. NW. $25–$62. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.