At the Hudson Theatre tonight on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, I caught Lady Patriot, written and directed by Ted Lange. He's probably best known for his role as bartender Isaac Washington on ABC's long-running show The Love Boat, but in the decades since that program's adieu he's been heavily engaged as a writer and director in theatre throughout the United States.
In Lady Patriot, the last in his trilogy of historical plays about our nation, Lange gives us a civics lesson about Confederacy President Jefferson Davis' personal and professional struggles trying to fight for a new nation and deal with his long-suffering wife Varina.
The play spans four years from 1861 to the war's aftermath in 1865 and is somewhat episodic, with a lot of early scenes bringing us up to speed about the players and what's happening in the country. The scenes that work the best, however, come 20 minutes or so into the drama, when we start delving into the personal relationships and see how the characters tick, not just spouting out factual tidbits.
Anne Johnstonbrown is terrific as she plays the complicated Varina Davis, who's pregnant for much of the show and has recently moved to the new capital in Richmond. She complains to her new friend Elizabeth Van Lew played by a vivacious Connie Ventress that she's got so much to do and all her slaves haven't yet arrived to help. She is lent Mary Bowser, one of Van Lew's slaves, who is touted as very competent, and, though the arrangement is for a two-week stint it expands into a four-year gig. The role of Mary is shared in different performances by Chrystee Pharris and Zuri Alexander, and it's the latter actress I caught tonight. Ms. Alexander brings Mary to light in a very convincing subdued performance that conceals a sense of defiance incubating within her.
In the course of the play we are subjected to the unpleasantness that comes hand to hand with the bigotry of the day, as the "N" word is liberally tossed about in front of the slaves, who accept it nonchalantly having been desensitized over the years to its impact. In these scenes the play soars, particularly when Old Robert the House Butler, played masterfully by Lou Beatty, Jr., is told matter of fact by an otherwise caring Jefferson Davis, portrayed by a determined but compassionate Goodon Goodman, why Robert's wife had been sold along with his children many years before. Just a business decision, nothing personal Davis tries to explain in no way offended by Robert's challenging question nor realizing the emotional tumult his family has inflicted upon the man.
Other prejudices of the day are explored, in particular Davis' choice of a Jew, Judah P. Benjamin as attorney general, played by a stoic Paul Messinger. Urged on by Davis, he proceeds to turn Varina's hostility about his religion into a mutual respect and affectionate relationship.
Rounding out the cast is journalist Mr. Slydell played winningly by Robert Pine whom the lonely Van Lew seeks to seduce.
To tell more would be to spoil some plot points and surprises, though some of you might already know even without seeing the play who eventually wins the Civil War (but you didn't hear it from me!)
Lange has directed Mary Lange's production of Lady Patriot effectively, bringing out comic moments and some stirring drama. The sets designed by Adam Hunter are laid out simply but true to the period along the wide proscenium. Costumes by Mylette Nora also lend authenticity to the era portrayed, as do the musical interludes, especially Al Jolson's rendition of Swanee. Additionally, Steven Pope's lighting design does the job fine.
It's not a perfect play and is perhaps a tad too long, but it's worth seeing to get another perspective and a more personal one to boot about a subject that has long been dramatized in various forms. It runs through October 14, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at the Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.
Michael Russnow's website is ramproductionsinternational.com.
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