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THEATER REVIEW Monticello
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-08-16

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Playwright: Thomas Geoghegan. At: Aurora Theater Works at the St. Bonaventure Oratory, 1625 N. Ashland Ave. Tickets: $20. Runs through: Sept. 3

The date is July 2, 1826. Former President Thomas Jefferson lies in poor health at Monticello, his debt-ridden home in Virginia, where his nephew Randolph is pressuring the composer of our country's Declaration of Independence to refute his assertion of equality therein, pursuant to incorporating an endorsement of slavery into his Independence Day speech.

On this fatal night, however, Jefferson's habit of inviting students from the nearby university for evening chats precipitates a visit from a cheerful alcohol-abstinent would-be writer named Edgar Allen Poe.

Well, it could have happened. Playwright Thomas Geoghegan's scholarship is sufficiently thorough to permit his bending it slightly in the service of his thesis: that Jefferson's manifesto for a new nation was not the hollow rhetoric of a hypocrite who preached ideas imported from a post-revolution France, but practiced social injustice toward those not sharing his class, gender and ethnicity. Instead, proposes Geoghegan, its author intended it as a call for his fellow citizens to resist tyranny—even of its own government—just as they once resisted English rule.

Geoghegan cannot resist taking a few hindsight potshots at Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists in his portrait of a Jefferson not immune to dishing the dirt on his own colleagues, and in doing so, foreshadowing a turbulent future that, by evening's end, will transform the innocent Poe into the sodden horrormeister we know today. By contrast, a subplot involving the threat to Jefferson's slaves—among them, his alleged mistress Sally Hemings—presented by Monticello's foreclosure remains steadfast in its solemnity, even when its characters' dramatic function is reduced to mere reiteration of the crisis at hand.

This last theme ( Did I mention the vodou-conjured specter of Haitian rebel Toussaint L'Ouverture? ) may explain the inclusion of many familiar faces from Congo Square Theater Company in this Aurora Theater Works inaugural production. Under the direction of Anthony Irons, a hard-working cast led by Marty Lodge as the philosophical Jefferson and Jeff Kurysz as the bewildered Poe maintain a sobriety lending a veneer of plausibility to Geoghegan's speculative hypotheses, despite anachronisms like the prevalence of portable writing instruments. What the results may lack in theatrical craft, however, they nevertheless redeem in the questions they raise about the truths we complacently claim to hold self-evident.


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