The Ford’s Theatre production of Jefferson’s Garden (by Timberlake Wertenbaker), which had its American premiere on January 24, tries to balance the oft-tread narrative of Thomas Jefferson’s role in shaping America with a Greek chorus that flits between vignettes from 1760 to 1795. The result is a weighty, uneven production that nevertheless features some standout scenes and performers.
Jefferson’s Garden is supposed to focus on Christian, a Quaker whose passion for American liberty has led to his banishment from Quaker society; and Susannah, who starts the play as a slave in Williamsburg, Virginia. As their lives entwine in increasingly complicated ways, they meet Thomas Jefferson, fight on opposing sides of the Revolutionary War, and try to discover what “freedom” really means.
However, the production does not treat Christian and Susannah equally. Christian – deftly played by Christopher Dinolfo – emerges as the true protagonist, while Susannah fades into the background repeatedly. It’s a curious choice for a show that’s part of the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival, and a shame that Felicia Curry’s steel-hearted Susannah doesn’t get a better opportunity to shine.
The show repeats this dynamic over and over, and that is its true problem, though the cast (coached by director Nataki Garrett) is talented and the technical elements work well. Thomas Jefferson, played with elegant coolness by Michael Halling, sometimes rhapsodizes about liberty and sometimes threatens his slaves, Sally and James Hemings (Kathryn Tkel and Michael Kevin Darnall). James gets to struggle with Jefferson, but Sally, who is reduced to a one-dimensional character, does not. Christian’s white wife (also Kathryn Tkel) is a hollow caricature of a patrician Southern belle, though she is played by an actress of color (the play does little to dig into that). Christian, on the other hand, gets meaty scenes in which he wrestles with his religious beliefs and his desire to fight for America. Imogen (Maggie Wilder), Christian’s sister, spends the entire play waiting for Christian to come home from war.
Sometimes, the production seems downright tone-deaf to the complexities of its women – and to the modern United States in which it’s staged. When a teenaged Christian meets Susannah in a tavern, she’s at work serving drinks. He tries to talk to her repeatedly, and Susannah shoots him down each time. It’s clear that Susannah doesn’t want to flirt, and Christian’s advances come across as harassment, especially since she’s an enslaved woman who can’t say no. Christian’s behavior is intended to be cute, but it comes across as cringe-worthy.
Jefferson’s Garden picks up during the second act when the show mostly disposes of the odd, disruptive Greek chorus that steps in to give lessons on interpreting history. James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson argue over James’ freedom in the show’s best scene, and Christian realizes that he has slipped far from his youthful idealism during several heartbreaking moments. Still, the weighty first act stretches too long and makes the show feel unbalanced.
The costumes, designed by Ivania Stack, occupy two racks on either side of the stage. Actors grab frock coats and wigs off hooks as they change roles, a choice that works well. The costumes look half-sumptuous and half-improvised, which fits with the play’s frequent scene changes and sweeping timeline. (Strangely, though, the frock coats are made of a plastic material that bunches awkwardly and makes noise whenever the men sit.)
Black stage cubes make up the majority of Milagros Ponce de León’s set, and the actors rearrange them constantly as the play jumps from Williamsburg to Philadelphia to Paris. This, like the costumes, suits the shifting setting. The actors’ physicality does the rest of the work, and as an ensemble, they excel at these changes. They convey a ship out at sea by rocking back and forth to the same rhythm of the waves, and they chatter and knock back beers as tavern patrons.
It is a shame, then, that the raw talent doesn’t cohere into a satisfying message about freedom. Jefferson’s Garden dips its toes into the subject of slavery rather than diving in headfirst, and this blunts its impact. It also minimizes the roles of the women it tries to illuminate. For hardcore fans of the Founding Fathers, however, Jefferson’s Garden may be worth watching: it offers a complex portrait of Thomas Jefferson and the men he both inspires and enslaves with his words.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Jefferson’s Garden plays through February 8th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, go online.