A nation divided. The blue and the grey, the red and the blue. Wars, cultural and other-wise, are still familiar to Americans 140 years after our Civil War. But A Few Stout Individuals by John ***image1***Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), based on the writing of Ulysses S Grant's Personal Memoirs, isn't about the divisions of war. It's about the divisions of memory.
The play is set in 1885 after Grant's presidency. We find the old general (Gene Rucker) ailing in his Manhattan apartment. He's in disgrace and debt. His livelihood depends upon the publication of his unwritten memoirs, which Rebel deserter Mark Twain (played lightly and convincingly by Jonathan Dixon), has undertaken to publish.
But Grant, addled by a cocktail of morphine, cocaine and brandy to ease the symptoms of his throat cancer, can't remember a thing. Urged on by Twain and his doting wife (Mia Ulibarri), Grant painstakingly configures his memoirs via the appearance of a cast of characters from his past liberally recreating history onstage. In a neat trick, Grant interacts simultaneously with what is present and real and what is past and imagined, successfully portraying the foibles of a dementia-leaning brain.
Grant's relationship with an adoring and enchanting Emperor and Empress of Japan is a pivotal touchstone in the play, as what the frail old giant needs to complete his memoirs may only be reached through circuitous fantasy. ***image2***The stage is continually littered with characters crouching in the periphery, as if in the corners of the mind. And though Grant's family and erstwhile publisher are present, most of the action is known only to Grant. Nicholas Masson as the Emperor does wonders with his sad, stern eyes and authoritative voice. Alexandra Reifarth deserves special mention as the beautiful Empress. Her performance is one long ballet of graceful movement and nuance.
The characters of the ailing and loaded Grant's imagination are far preferable, both to Grant and the audience, to the scramblings of his immediate family. The running time is long and too much dialogue is devoted to Grant's unworthy and irritating progeny who act with all the depth and color of sitcom foils.
The play resonates beyond an exercise in history and stagecraft because the question of what we choose to do with memory is vital and emanates from the fantastical inner world we each, as individuals, inhabit. In fact, it's too bad the play merely turned a cold shoulder to reality when it could have given it the finger.