Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean: Jason Stokes Premiers Original Historical Screenplay, Composure - by Haley Sprankle


Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Columbia where we lay our scene...


The year is 1903. The Tillman family, headed by the Lieutenant Governor for the State of South Carolina, and the Gonzales family, headed by the founder of The State newspaper, are in a known feud. This ancient grudge (that began in the 1880s) broke to new mutiny as Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman murders NG Gonzales.


That’s where local actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter Jason Stokes’ story begins.


“I first heard about this story at my ‘real’ work (Media Director for the South Carolina Bar) in 2000 during a presentation on the subject by Donnie Myers. I was fascinated by the story in part because of the sensational nature of the crime, but the more I began to research the story I realized that there was much more to it than just a murder and a murder trial,” Stokes explains.  “The Tillmans and The Gonzaleses were two powerful families in the city of Columbia who did not like each other for various reasons. This feud began in the late 1880’s and continued even after the events of January 15, 1903. During that time one side wielded power and opinion in the public press while the other side railed against the Gonzaleses and The State newspaper with every stump speech.”


This Saturday, Stokes presents an original screenplay titled Composure based on this rich piece of Columbia’s history. His cast includes such luminary local talent such as Paul Kaufmann, Eric Bultman, Stann Gwynn, Terrance Henderson, Hunter Boyle, Clint Poston, Katie Leitner, Stan Gardner, G. Scott Wild, Libby Campbell, Kevin Bush, Jonathan Jackson, Nate Herring, and Kendrick Marion.


“I’ve been very fortunate not only to have these talented actors lend their craft to this project but they are also valued friends and colleagues. I promise to anyone in attendance, if the story doesn’t impress you the talent certainly will,” Stokes says.


While Stokes is certainly no stranger to the Columbia arts community, having been seen in productions ranging from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Rent, not many know that he is a writer.


“I began writing just after my father passed away in 1989. My mother gave me a notebook to write down memories of my father when I had them but, being an adolescent, as I started writing down a memory or story it would veer away from facts to whatever fiction my mind was dreaming up at the time. So I’ve been writing for the last 27 years (to varying degrees of success),” Stokes said.


After writing about 30 screenplays, some of which have television spec scripts pitched to shows such as The West Wing and Castle, Stokes has developed his own style and writing process.


“Each screenplay is different, but they all seem to start before I really know where they are going. For example, I’ll write a scene that I either have no idea what it’s trying to say in a grand scheme, or I don’t know where it belongs in the story I’m thinking about,” Stokes delineates. “Composure was no different. The surface story was there but to make it interesting and make it build to something that makes people think was the challenge. This being a historical piece I just kept doing more and more research to see if I could find anything new to add to the layers, which took time. I worked off-and-on on the screenplay for about three years, and it wasn’t until I decided to begin with the murder and then bounce back and forth in time during the trial, to add the ‘why’ of the murder, that made it really exciting for me to want to write it.”


Being an actor himself adds a particularly interesting dynamic to Stokes’ work and process, as well.


“As an actor, it’s always a blessing to work on a well written piece of work, Tennessee Williams, Terrance McNally, Jonathan Larson, you want to chew on it as long as you can because really good, juicy dialogue and lyrics don’t come around all the time. So when I write I like to think of the story and dialogue in the vein; Would this be something I would want to sink my teeth into as an actor and rejoice in the fact that I GET to say these lines and tell this story?” Stokes adds.


Don’t miss the two hours’ traffic of the Trustus Side Door Theatre this Saturday, January 16 for free! Doors and bar open at 6:30 with the performance beginning at 7:30.


“Opinion reporting is nothing new, as evident by this story, but with the advent of technology and polarizing news outlets only compounding the divisive nature and climate I think we find ourselves in today, this is a true story that still has relevance and meaning,” Stokes says. “No one story, one person, one political ideology can be measured strictly in absolutes. If the audience can be entertained and enlightened in some way through the events of these gentlemen, then maybe the cast and I will have offered a different perspective in which to view our own world.”

Review: In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play

They got chills, they’re multiplying, and they’re losing control, ’cause the power they’re supplying, it’s electrifying. But that’s not Sandy and Danny from the show playing a few blocks away, but rather the characters in Sarah Ruhl’s Tony-nominated play In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play, which opened this past Friday at Trustus Theatre.

While not for all tastes or audiences, this show provides, dare I say, a stimulating and thought-provoking evening of theatrical entertainment, thanks to its talented cast and production staff.

Set in the late Victorian era, a time when scientific advances are outpacing societal ones, In the Next Room focuses on Mrs. Givings (her given name is Catherine, but almost all characters are referred to formally, even among husband and wife) and her husband, a brilliant and dedicated doctor who treats women for “hysteria.” However hard to believe in today’s (relatively) enlightened world, hysteria is basically a catch-all term for “acting crazy, like a woman,” and encompasses moodiness, depression, frustration, argumentativeness, self-doubt, sexual dysfunction, and even standing up for oneself. Dr. Givings nobly attempts to treat women (and the occasional man) via new technology, especially electric vibrators, which he believes relieve pressure, i.e. via orgasm.

This would seem awfully far-fetched, and on the level of burlesque, if it were not historically accurate. As Mrs. Givings, Sumner Bender takes on the complex leading role that she has long deserved. Using a sort of refined, Katharine Hepburn-like delivery, she is both regal and vulnerable, passionate yet repressed. Her rebelliousness manifests as no more than natural doubt as to her maternal abilities, the desire for reciprocal love in her marriage, and occasional “crazy” moments of running outside to make snow angels. In other words, she’s a normal, modern woman who finds herself in the 1880′s.

From the advance press and the set-up above, I assumed her husband would be depicted as a controlling chauvinist. Steve Harley, however, instead portrays Dr. Givings as a clinical and detached man of science, clearly in love with his wife, but a product of both his time and his own nature. Harley’s delivery is quite under-stated and therefore very believable and realistic, especially when the dialogue sometimes becomes very formal and polysyllabic. If that name looks familiar, he was in most of the great Trustus productions in the 90′s, and it’s a treat to see him here.

Among the supporting cast, the standout is Daniel Gainey, who plays a depressed artist who turns to the good doctor for help. “Hysteria is very rare in men,” Harley notes, “but then he is an artist.” Gainey’s bio indicates a background primarily in opera and operatic musical theatre, but he is quite the dramatic (and comedic) performer. He takes the prize for mastery of the flowery, 19th century verbal style, and his general demeanor and appearance really make you think he’s stepped right out of the pages of a Henry James novel.

Alexis Doktor’s costumes, the ultra-realistic and detailed scenic design by Andy Mills, and the detailed (and functioning) props by Nate Herring all contribute to the authentic period feel. I must note that one prop in particular provoked about 20 seconds of increasingly uncontrolled laughter from the audience on opening night (a phenomenon I can’t recall hearing/seeing ever before) and the cast gamely and proficiently held until everything died back down.

Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer gets kudos for wrangling the script’s fairly intricate dialogue and making it all sound natural, and for creating nice tableaus on stage, when various things are happening in various rooms. In spite of some comic moments relating to the very notion of people using vibrators to solve their psychological problems, some of this play’s themes may be a little over the head of the average theatre-goer, who may just be looking for a good laugh. I was reminded in many ways of some of the social commentary in the work of George Bernard Shaw, and of the lush, period films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The first act sometimes drags in between the funny parts, and while Gainey’s entrance in the second act considerably livens up the proceedings, things sometimes get awfully talky; with intermission, the show runs almost two and a half hours, and I would have been happy with about thirty minutes edited out. Still there are some thoughtful and important discussions on the nature of motherhood, marriage, and the inter-connectivity of art, science and humanity. At one point Gainey observes “I have loved enough women to know how to paint. If I had loved fewer I would be an illustrator; if I had loved more, I would be a poet.” You just don’t find more eloquent lines that that, and if someone told me that Oscar Wilde wrote that, I’d believe it.

Ruhl could have turned her play into a more overt feminist statement, or a broader sex comedy, but wisely takes the middle ground, which allows for a more satisfying conclusion. The more one is an enthusiast of history, or literature, or women’s and gender studies, the more one will embrace this production. For me, the attraction and enjoyment was much simpler: Ellen Douglas Schlaefer is back directing and Steve Harley is back acting at Trustus; Sumner Bender and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler (as another patient) get juicy roles on stage; mainstays Elena Martinez-Vidal and Stann Gwynn do their usual excellent work; everything is quite posh and spiffy, from the dialogue to the set itself. Which is more than good enough for me.

In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play runs three more weeks, through Sat. May 26th, including another matinee on Sun. May 20th. Call the box office at (803) 254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel