by Jon Tuttle
Eight years and several iterations after its 2010 debut, the Restoration’s Constance is finally and fully on its feet at Trustus, and it is a monolith.
A fictional musical saga set in Reconstruction-era Lexington, the play defies summation except to say they’re all there, all those primal southern tropes, like bigotry, miscegenation, old money, zealotry, revenge, hypocrisy, and violence. It’s unwieldy and exhausting and overwhelming and an excellent example of what theatre is for.
It’s elemental, is what it is. It begins with fire—the actual fire set by Sherman’s troops in 1865 at St. Stephen’s Church—and ends in flood, the drowning of an entire town by an embittered native son. It is earth, in its emphasis on home and land and the genius of place. And it is air, or rather ayre, an aural palette of (how to describe it?) Americana/heartland/folk balladry.
That Constance is a protracted labor of love between two old friends--Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson and The Restoration founder Daniel Machado--becomes obvious in its attention to detail and commitment of resources. Henderson wrote the book, quilting together Machado’s songs with dialogue so assured you can’t hear the writing. In directing it, he deployed many of the theatrical gadgets in his Swiss Army knife. And he hired Tom Beard, always a pro, as musical director, and Jessica Bornick, whose costumes are terrific. The result is a multi-media, multi-modal theatrical tsunami, more akin to Bernstein’s Mass than to the last musical you saw.
The flood scene, for instance, is magnificently effectuated by the “floating” of church pews by members of the ensemble. The fire is a combination of lighting mayhem, percussive stomping, urgent strings and
choreography. Virtually every scene introduces a fresh visual element--Brechtian projections, newsreel footage, scrim silhouettes, a cascade of flying paper, and (this was brilliant) an unruly mob armed with creepy flashlights marauding the auditorium. Meanwhile, hanging ominously on the back wall: heavy ropes, impossible to ignore in a play about race.
And there are unmistakable references to Our Town, appropriate in such a panoramic homage to our town, such as the adult Constance’s observation of herself at different ages, or the funeral scene, or in Paul Kaufman’s (riveting) Reverend Harper, at first a unifying and benevolent consciousness presiding over these affairs like Wilder’s Stage Manager, later reduced by time and tribulation to a ragged, wild-haired, raging alcoholic howling about the “Werewolf of Ballentine” and looking as horrifically grizzled as Steve Bannon on a good day.
The cast itself is colossal, consisting of twenty-five actors led by Trustus veterans Kaufman and, in the role of the adult Constance Owen, Vicky Saye Henderson, whom I cannot review fairly because her singing beguiles me. I think, however, she might be magnificent because what I wanted most was more of her.
And here begin my apprehensions.
The play is actually two, each its own act. In the first, we meet teenage Constance (played by Brittany Hammock) and her love interest, the mixed-race Aaron Vale (Mario McClean). So convincing is their chemistry, so harmonious their voices, so solid their performances, that the play is never better than when they are on stage. Indeed, their scenes together provide the evening’s best moments and melodies (like “I Can’t Stop Wanting You”). If such actors are the inheritors of Trustus’ reputation, then the theatre is in excellent hands.
But the first act is so long as to test the limits of the even the most heroic middle-aged prostate. This being a work-still-in-progress, further pruning is likely to be done. A good place to start, so say I, would be the subplot involving a local troupe’s production of Othello, which seems to ape Waiting for Guffman and features the embarrassing caricature of a flaming primo uomo. Or perhaps the glimpses we are given into the troubled marriage of Col. and Mrs. Palmer, he a pompous developer with an eye for the colored help, she a pious shrew competing for his attention. To be fair, their story is actually quite compelling, particularly as it is embodied by Stan Gwynn and Len Marini, but it tries to compete with the real story here, that being Constance and Aaron’s, whose secret wedding in a short, lovely benedictory would have made an excellent act-closer. And should have.
Better there, so say I, than much later, at Aaron’s death scene, and for two reasons. One is that it’s odd. No sooner has he suffered an infarction than he calls for his guitar, sits up, and begs Constance, through song, not to “let my music die with me. Don’t let it go into the ground with me. Write it down, write it down, write it down for me.” It’s a fine piece of music, but it would have made more sense had it been sung a capella, since he’s, you know, dying. And until that point he hadn’t really identified so strongly with his music. He took more pride, or so I thought, in his skills as a builder.
At any rate, I was sorry to see him go, partly because I really liked him, but mostly because I knew the play had just created for itself a considerable structural challenge. Conventional Dramatic Wisdom dictates that a second act must trump the first; it must quicken the themes and conflicts already established and more deeply develop its characters. But now a romantic lead was dead, so that story was over. Where to now?
Conventional Dramatic Wisdom can be wrong, of course. Witness Robert Schenkkan’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, a play very similar in texture and scope. It’s actually nine different, barely-connected plays spanning two-hundred years and running six hours. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and Constance shares its DNA. And it attempts the same sort of narrative teleportation: in Act II we are introduced to Thomas Vale, Constance and Aaron’s quadroon son, who now becomes our protagonist because Constance is glimpsed only rarely.
In an opening duet, ten-year-old Thomas (Henry Melkomian) and his friend Henry (Christopher Hionis) sing (quite well) that “I don’t understand” why race would separate people, and that refrain interweaves gracefully through the rest of the play, which is essentially a catalogue of young Thomas’ frustrations. These are (a) the death, in war, of Henry; (b) unrequited affection for Willodean, on account of the one-drop rule; (c) the foreclosure on the family home, and (d) there’s this hooker. And so the stage is set for the violent climax, and when it comes, it’s a cathartic sensory spectacle played out before Constance’s eyes so that the full measure of her loss can be realized. The whole act has the shape of a perfectly plausible plotline, the closing of a long and vicious circle, really the story of the South itself.
Perhaps there are again too many distractions. At one point, for instance, two of Colonel Parker’s mill hands interrupt a New Year’s Eve party bearing a bag of bloody cotton testifying to the death of Flora, the object of his unreconstructed lust. But because the contents of the bag better resemble the offal of a difficult liposuction, his grief seems comical. And then, for instance, there’s a song about Little Round Shoes, which “I don’t understand.” And the cast turns over almost completely, as generations do, and I get that, but I kept wondering where Constance went. When in the coda she is discovered, years later, recounting her story to a stranger on a train, she feels like a stranger on a train.
And yet, and yet.
“Constance” means fidelity, commitment, perseverance, which perhaps explains the sensation of comfort attendant to our last encounter with her. It is comforting, at play’s end, to look back upon her life and see so many familiar stories there, and so much sorrow, and more than that, so much goodness.
The theatre’s purpose is tell stories of other people so that we can find designs for living our own real stories—which are unwieldy and exhausting and overwhelming. They are epic poems, is what they are, and one ought to appreciate a piece of art that sings one.
Constance may become a permanent part of Trustus’ repertoire, a play it can return to in years to come, and it ought to, because it’s uniquely theirs, and it’s ours, and it’s really quite extraordinary.
Jon Tuttle is Professor of English and Director of University Honors at Francis Marion University and former Literary Manager at Trustus Theatre, where his play BOY ABOUT TEN will premier in August.