Grinder's Stand, by Oakley Hall III. Directed by John Sowle. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Brett Owen, Stephen Jones, Jon Lee, William Dobbins, Nancy Rothman, Steven Patterson, Philip X. Levine; photo: John Sowle
"There's evidence the shrinking men are winning."
William Dobbins; photo: John Sowle
The only real problem with the play "Grinder's Stand" by Oakley Hall III, being presented by Kaliyuga Arts at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY, is that there is no solid evidence to point to the conclusion of the play. Neither is there enough proof of any other theory about the death of explorer and Governor of Upper Louisiana, Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame). Long believed to have committed suicide, other theorists have touted murder and/or extermination or/and assassination. One scholar actually suggested death by near-matrimony, a "scared to death" sort of demise.
Oakley Hall III has chosen an odd combination of things for his play. Nevertheless at the end of the second act the man is dead and being mourned by two survivors, Mrs. Caroline Grinder and Robert Smith, a man who may be employed by the US Government or may be a riverboat pilot or may be an employed guard. We are never really sure who Smith is.
We do know about the plotting of Frederick Bates, Territorial Secretary of Upper Louisiana who is clearly jealous of the power and control of Lewis, and who plots against him from the third second of the play. We do know about the misplaced work of the misguided slave Pernia. We understand the very different choices made by Lewis's explorer/parther William Clark. We know exactly who Gilbert Russell, Commander of Fort Pickering, is and how he operates. and we have a pretty good sense of James Neelly, Indian Agent for the Chickasaw Nation. It is really only the three main characters who remain ambiguous from start to finish.
Lewis, nicely played by William Dobbins, is a man given to internalized thoughts emerging as out-loud monologues that disturb the people who overhear him exposing them. He is a ruminant. He is a man obsessed with understanding the things around him and criticizing those things and himself constantly. He is a man addicted to the drug Laudanum and he is a man who cannot drink alcohol because of the toll that takes on his mind and body. He is a mass of contradictions who feels a great responsibility to his government, but not to his current President - Madison - due to his unflagging loyalty to the previous leader - Jefferson - who has moved away from Lewis and all of his other former friends and advisors. Dobbins brings great credence to this man of counterpoint personality and he never feels impossible to believe in at any point in the play. That is an achievement in a play that leaves its main character out on a credibility limb for most of the play.
As his guard/friend/assassin/murderer/protector, Robert Smith, Steven Patterson gives a most intriguing performance. From one moment to the next he shows us the man's emotions played out in his face and his shoulders and his hands. What we never truly see is Smith's process of thought in the matter of Lewis' future. He excites the character's realities and tickles his possibilities with a backward glance, or a hurried exit. Patterson never gives away the next moments in his performance. Instead he manages to surprise us again and again in the most predictable situations.
As Major Neelly, and as William Clark, Jon Lee does an excellent job. If the blond hair and the overly similar accents are confusing, at least the physical presentations of these two very different men is handled expertly by Lee. As Clark he is affectionate and cheerful; as Neely he is just the opposite - a man with no humor who cannot help but entertain through the roughness of his attitudes and the callowness of his opinions. The work here is really fine by Jon Lee.
Stephen Jones make Pernia into a slave without convictions. As a man who can be bought and sold, he is definitely bought by Bates and he does his dirty handiwork with a perfect sense of the real and not the ridiculous. Jones handles the most subtle of roles in a nice way with manners that tell of Lewis's care of this man and of his own personal dislike for the men he serves.
Phillip X. Levine handles the complex Gilbert Russell with aplomb. He moves within his character's clothing as though he has been issued a uniform that almost fits him physically and never fits him intellectually. This is a pivotal role and Levine gives it a fair shot. It is a very near miss because the playwright has not delivered solidly on Russell's true nature and character.
Steven Patterson and Jon Lee; photo: John Sowle
William Dobbins and Nancy Rothman; photo: John Sowle
Brett Owen has a difficult juxtaposition of roles. He has been assigned the modest narrative speeches, his physical character taking on an unlikely role of storyteller. He does this in character which makes his following speeches about Lewis and his hatred of the man difficult to accept. When he IS Secretary Bates, he is terrific, however, playing the smarmy, jealous man, turning him into the perfect rat. This role is truly the epitome of modern-day politics, a veritable manipulator of the way men think on a subject.
Mrs. Grinder, who doesn't appear until halfway through the second act, is given a lovely and emotionally unstable rendition by Nancy Rothman. We have to wonder, in the love scene, whose pawn who might really be. We can see and hear what she is doing, but we cannot understand quite why. Caroline's motivations are awkward and her transitions are abrupt. Rothman does whatever she can to make the lady appear genuine, but the mix is terrible. Her only bad moment comes at the beginning of her scenes, though, and for the balance of her stage time, including the modest keening at the end (and I do mean modest) Rothman manages a balance of outrageous behavior in the light of the day with intrinsic style which she has in great amounts. It's a very worthwhile appearance by this actress.
John Sowle who lit, and directed the show so well, has also designed the flexible and natural set. His triple-threat work on this play has done the script a great deal of good that it may not merit. On stage are believable men and women, for the most part. Sowle's work with them as director shows in the oddly uniform levels at which they play their roles. In spite of the competitive nature of many of the characters they come across as incidental rivals, accidental lovers, homoerogenous talkers and outrageous immoralists. Kaitlyn Day's costumes are perfect.
History buffs: this play is a must. Theater nuts: this play is a must. In both instances the challenge is to define what is true and what is fiction. Not even the special consultant to the play, Steven Patterson who has had an association with it since 1978 (and plays a role in it) can truly delineate the truth from the fiction. What the playwright has done is to choose one possible solution and present it in as straightforward a manner as possible - up to a point. This is a play, after all, and we all know that players are unreliable. Therefore, I could tell you how it ends, but there's no proof that the way I saw it is the way you'll see it. . .or understand it. . .or come to grips with it. This one really is up to the viewer.
I know what I think.
Grinder's Stand plays at the Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge Street, Catskill, NY through October 18. For tickets or information call the box office at 518-943-3818 or go on line at http://bridgest.org