Garden-Variety History

Twilight at Monticello: An Evening With Thomas Jefferson

The fascinating part of Twilight at Monticello: An Evening With Thomas Jefferson is not the hour-and-45-minute monologue that serves as the main attraction but rather the short qanda period that follows, in which actor-creator J.D. Sutton answers questions about the show's subject. He does this first in character as the octogenarian Thomas Jefferson, then -- after removing his shoulder-length white wig -- as Jefferson's assistant, who responds to queries by invoking modern-day elements in his responses (read: DNA testing and Sally Hemings). One audience member asked T.J. if he had thought about putting his performance on tape. "Jefferson" answered that it had never occurred to him to put his speech on a cloth tape. (His assistant later commented that a videotape project may be in thecards.)

One the one hand, the experience of sitting through Sutton's monologue is akin to a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts where costumed characters explain how they make candles from beeswax or, in the case of Jefferson, come to possess a seat at the Second Continental Congress. You can talk back to the performer and get some clarification on, say, why Jefferson never freed his slaves during his lifetime. (Sutton, an unabashed apologist for the third President, says it's because the slaves would have been at risk for capture and resale to other owners. Apparently Jefferson's reasoning had nothing to do with the impossibility of running his plantation without slaves.)

On the other hand, the National Park Service and real-life-history sites such as Williamsburg have moved light years ahead of Sutton when it comes to accommodating the attention spans and political complexity of the MTV era. Colonial Williamsburg, for example, strayed from the safe path of never offending anyone a few years ago by staging a slave auction. Meant to explain how African-Americans were treated in the 18th Century, it displeased many. Other historical sites are being adventurous in other ways. At the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I once enjoyed a tour in which the guide pointed out the very spot on which Mrs.Longfellow backed into a gas lamp, caught on fire, and burned to death. Living history, indeed.

Wigging out: Sutton as Thomas Jefferson
Wigging out: Sutton as Thomas Jefferson

Details

Written and performed by J.D.Sutton. Directed by Jerry Waxman. Through August 8.
Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, 1938 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-929-5400

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Sutton, an Orlando-based actor who also wrote the Twilight at Monticello monologue, aims to bring to life the Jefferson who can be reconstructed from his writings. The problem with putting together a person from parts, as Doctor Frankenstein can surely tell us, is that you may end up with all the limbs but you can't guarantee you'll capture the personality. This Jefferson tends to speak in ponderous statements culled from his letters and documents. We all relish the poetry of the Declaration of Independence, but do we want to sit through two hours of its language? Sutton isn't a supple-enough actor to infuse the familiar phrases of Jefferson's best-known writing with fresh energy or to give us a sense of what spending an hour with the statesman might have actually beenlike.

Sutton's historical fidelity has a certain charm -- who wouldn't like to ask old Tom a question or two? -- but it severely limits his character to only those aspects of his life Jefferson himself wrote down. For example, Sutton makes use of Jefferson's journals on gardening, which are rich with the day-to-day detail in ways that his writing about, say, the founding of the University of Virginia are not. But instead of the genius who dotted the Virginia landscape with choice samples of Palladian architecture and created a model of liberal-arts education, Sutton's audiences are given a man who likes to plantbeans.

The Jefferson who emerges in Twilight at Monticello is not Jefferson the architect, the amateur musician, or the inventor, much less the Jefferson who probably had an affair with Sally Hemings, a slave he owned who was also the half sister of his deceased wife. Nowhere does the monologue attack the contradictions inherent in the life of a man who tacitly condoned slavery yet penned the very documents that would allow future generations to give birth to both the Emancipation Proclamation and the civil rights movement. Indeed, far from grasping the contradictions of Jefferson's life, Twilight at Monticello doesn't have much drama in it atall.

The play's conceit seems to be that audience members are evening visitors at Jefferson's Charlottesville home, although no attempt is made to build a story from beginning to climax to end. Sutton has no statement to make nor, as far as I can tell, any particular point of view about Jefferson other than that we should find him interesting. At the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, Jerry Waxman directs Sutton on Floyd Mitchell's low-rent set depicting the interior of Monticello. Amy Hungerford-Sutton's costume of breeches, waistcoat, and wig, seem astoundingly authentic, at least to this Virginian who spent four years as an undergrad at Jefferson's alma mater in Williamsburg.

Jefferson is a perennial subject of fascination, a multifaceted personality whose biography continues to give off new interpretations of our national history. He's been depicted in any number of dramas from the popular Broadway musical 1776 to the more recent film Jefferson in Paris, but each generation remakes him in its own image, and each biography is supplanted by thenext.

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