Near the end of 1776, a thoroughly delightful show that's been uncomfortably crammed into Circuit Playhouse, John Adams sits all alone in Independence Hall, talking to himself like an American Hamlet. Once upon a time he dreamed of a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition of equality. Now he can't comprehend why his dream has met with such ugly resistance. He fears that in combating that resistance he too has become ugly and shrill and his dream displaced by bitterness and personal desire.
As Adams, Michael Detroit blithely skates through this dynamic, Tony Award-winning musical. He throws away laugh lines and never musters the level of righteous indignation suggested by the script. But in the diminutive patriot's quieter, more humane scenes, he is masterful. In his moments of self-doubt, as Adams' commitment falters, Detroit becomes a mirror reflecting not only the confusion that reigned at the birth of our nation but also the confusion that lingers on. In his struggle to keep on keeping on, the best and the worst of contemporary American politics is fully on display.
Adams, a fierce champion of American independence, is often called a traitor by the "Cool, Considerate Men" of Congress, who appear to value only their property and a maintenance of the status quo. His miserable treatment by the conservatives closely resembles the angry shout-downs of anybody who dared to oppose America's more recent invasion of Iraq. Like Adams, these now-vindicated activists were called traitors and country-haters.
Jason Spitzer, an extraordinarily creepy Mr. Collins in last season's Pride and Prejudice, has achieved a new personal best. As John Dickinson, the Pennsylvania conservative most fiercely opposed to American independence, he is cool and full of self-satisfied snark. He is detestable but ultimately sympathetic as, in defeat, he confesses hope for the great American experiment.
Spitzer is perhaps the only true standout in a show that has seen several fine regional productions over the years. Dave Landis essentially plays himself in a Ben Franklin costume, which isn't a bad thing at all. Ron Gephardt's take on the rum-soaked Stephen Hopkins is fine and quite funny, and county commissioner Steve Mulroy is quietly effective as Dr. Lyman Hall, the delegate from Georgia who chooses to vote for independence against the will of the people he represents.
As Edward Rutledge, the wealthy South Carolinian slave owner, David Foster seems to have been pushed to the show's margins. Nevertheless, "Molasses to Rum to Slaves," his haunting waltz, is an unvarnished lesson in triangle trade, reminding his fellow congressmen that New England's sailors, distillers, and Bible-printers were as tainted by the legacy of slavery as any of their Southern brethren. Foster's minor-keyed impression of a slave auctioneer is chilling. Musically speaking, it's the show's most powerful moment.
Detroit sings his role flawlessly and is typically light on his feet. But the fury evident from the play's opening moments, when Adams declares, "By God I have had this Congress," has been replaced by actorly clucking and hand-wringing. Stephanie Faatz sings beautifully and fills the underwritten role of Abigail Adams, John's wife and confidant, with stubbornness and deep affection.
General George Washington never actually appears in 1776. The leader of the Continental Army is represented by a series of letters, each more dire than the last, and brimming with death, calamity, and certain doom. His final missive ends in hopelessness as Washington asks, "Is anybody there?"
It's a valid question, and one for our time. Congress has accomplished nothing. "We piddle, twiddle, and resolve," Adams sings. But Congress was certainly there, working slowly and frustratingly to overcome a common dilemma. The solutions were often compromised and hung with evils that foreshadowed America's Civil War and the ongoing struggle for meaningful equality and civil rights. But the message was clear: There is always time to not make the worst decisions.
At Circuit Playhouse through October 19th