A message to a great actor: Jim DeVita in the one-man play “American Song”

Jim DeVita, as a devastated father of a dead son from a terrorist gun massacre, in the world premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s one-man play “American Song,” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo courtesy jsonline.com

I decided to post the e-mail message below, which I sent to actor Jim DeVita today, even though the brilliant one-man play American Song, which he delivered the world premiere of at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, has closed.

I managed to get to the end of the play’s run, but I still wanted to offer my appreciation to him, and for those who may have an opportunity to see the play, and to see DeVita perhaps performing American Song elsewhere, or in other roles with Milwaukee theater companies, or in his long-time position as a lead company actor for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin.
Anywhere you see him, you will probably understand why The New Yorker critic Terry Teachout called him “America’s greatest classical actor.”

But in this case, DeVita played the heart and stone-burdened Andy, in an overwhelmingly up-to-the-minute play by Joanna Marie-Smith, and directed by The Rep’s artistic director Mark Clements. 1

The play’s title references Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, wherein the poet likens America to a song and its citizens as potentially a chorus, just as he celebrates American individualism, throughout the “Grass” collection, most famously in the poem “Song of Myself.”

The new play American Song, challenges Whitman’s optimism for an American populace singing in harmony. In fact, playwright Murray-Smith isolates one individual with almost cold-blooded scrutiny.

A father named Andy is hand-building a stone wall on his property while he struggles to come to grips with the harsh, devastating reality of his son’s recent death. The spectral back story is a terrorist gun massacre in the son’s school, which left nine people dead including his son and many injured, an all-too-familiar dirge of a song today. One wonders how Whitman would’ve responded to this numbing American refrain.

I will say no more about the story, only to add that the play’s scrutiny allows us to experience and feel the depth and array of feelings of this human being, an every man with warm blood and a lacerated heart.
In my message, I do try to express some appreciation of the power of the play and especially of DeVita’s astonishing performance.

Hey Jim,

I want you to know that my girlfriend Ann and I finally caught the last Sunday matinee performance of American Song. We were in the balcony in the middle. Both of us were greatly impressed by the play, and engrossed and moved by your performance.

Ann said that she felt on the verge of tears frequently. This is a tribute to you, and your uncanny ability — often in mid-set sentence — to shift into an emotionally charged tone. The audience senses, in the bat of an eyelash, the increased pressure and weight of that nuanced, yet charged, moment. The cumulative effect is draining yet quietly exhilarating.
Yet, the 90 minutes flew by with only you, and the text and stage direction, to sustain their flow and power.
I can think of very few actors who have such skills as yours, in this regard. You also commanded the narrative flow beautifully.
And I love the metaphor of you building the stone wall, it’s rhythm and symbolism, which is rich and open to interpretation.
For me, perhaps you are building a wall around your heart, to protect it. Of course, we never see you complete it because that is perhaps a lifelong project, at least internally, which adds to the play’s poignance and the footprints of personal history, your stone-hauling and pacing back and forth  — and talking to the sky in confounded wonder and anger.
The latter act evokes, for me, King Lear, before he loses it, and Melville’s “quarrel with God.” You recall, Melville also lost his oldest son, age 18, to a gun death, most likely suicide.
Thank you for an indelible experience,
Kevin Lynch
p.s,. Stay in touch regarding your performance and writing exploits, especially regarding Melville. Hi to Brenda.
_____________
1. Milwaukee Rep director Mark Clements approached playwright Joanna Murray-Scott about writing this play for the rep in 2012, “not too long before America and the world was shocked to its core by the fatal shootings of 20 children between the ages of six and seven, along with six other adult staff members, at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut., The director writes in his program notes to American song.”
Murray-Scott is an Australian playwright and novelist. Among her plays are Honour and Rapture, which both won the Victorian Premier’s literary award for best play.

The Day the United States Hanged a Woman — Mary Surratt

A Southerly Cultural Journal Vol. 3

“There is sobbing of the strong/And a pall upon the land/ But the people in their weeping/Bare the iron hand/ Beware the people weeping when they bare the iron hand.” — Herman Melville, “The Martyr” Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War

Amid a rousing theatrical comedy, a Derringer pistol bullet tore into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s head. Somewhere in the shadows of the tragedy stood Mary Surratt. The horror of John Wilkes Booth’s fanatical assassination of Lincoln turned the national government into a vindictive prosecutor and it most likely miscarried justice for Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the US federal government.

Mary Surratt

Nine Union military officers deemed her guilty of conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination. Surratt however  doesn’t even earn an index mention in the exhaustive Oxford Guide to United States History.

Nevertheless her case is the most controversial legal decision to emerge directly from the assassination. The recent Robert Redford-directed film The Conspirator, now out on video, brings the hanged woman back to life in one of the most compelling historical dramas in recent memory.

It is a tragedy of the South – especially of a border Civil War state — Maryland, not unlike Missouri where I visited recently — both with complicated Civil War legacies. It speaks to the unpredictable ways that a wounded   democracy can assert itself, all too often in perversions of our Constitutional ideals.

And it is a story of womanhood wronged by political blood lust for revenge. At a time when a woman still could not vote, Surratt became a sacrificial lamb for a nation understandably lashing out. President Andrew Johnson limited voting to white men who “assured the dominance of lawmakers unsympathetic to the rights of free people,” writes Michael Les Benedict. 1 This led to the reviled “black codes” which “circumscribed black southerners’ civil rights.”

And the Surratt trial also speaks to our post 9/11 era of sometimes reactive persecution of whomever might satisfy the lust for vengeance, disguised as justice for the sake of security.

The nine-man military commission appointed by Johnson to investigate the assassination  “was illegal in the sense that it should have been a civilian rather than the military proceeding “ and “seemed to be interested in vengeance, not truth,” Kenneth Davis writes 2.

The Conspirator reveals that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) will settle for either Mary Surratt or her son John, who successfully eluded capture and was most likely an actual conspirator.

Robin Wright magnificently embodies the eloquently stoic suffering of Surratt, who spends a long time in jail as her case is processed. In reality Surratt suffered from extreme menstrual pain during this period.  This somewhat unseemly reality is glossed in the film which has her on a hunger strike which threatens her health.

Also excellent is James McAvoy as the young attorney Frederick Aiken, a former Union officer who is convinced of Surratt’s guilt though appointed to defend her. He gradually comes to understand the trial’s  injustice and fights valiantly, even despite Mary’s enigmatic recalcitrance.

Why is Surratt important? Because at a crucial point in our nation’s psychic history she showed how vulnerable our citizens and judicial system are to corruptions of self-righteousness.

It was like executing the mother of an accomplice of Lee Harvey Oswald because you couldn’t find the right man. Surratt ran a boarding house not far from the Ford Theater where she admitted John Wilkes Booth met with other men repeatedly before the assassination.

All the evidence against her was circumstantial. Knowing Booth, carrying a message for him to Lloyd (to have “the shooting irons” ready) and failing to recognize conspirator Lewis Powell one evening (after the assassination; she had poor eyesight) was the sum of the case against her, “none of which constituted a crime,” wrote historian Laurie Verge 3. Many testified that Surratt was actually loyal to the Union and took the “conspiratorial” trip in question only to collect debts owed her husband.

“She was simply an unsuspecting pawn of John Wilkes Booth,” Verge concludes.

Conspirator Lewis Powell a.k.a. Lewis Payne 

Given the ambiguity of her guilt, the real question is whether the gallows was the proper sentence for her. Thirty-one people testified for Surratt’s defense.  Among nine prosecution witnesses, only two provided notable testimony:  John Lloyd, who denied Surratt’s guilt then changed his story, and Louis Weichmann, who witnesses said was extremely intoxicated the night of the assassination but managed to fix a wagon wheel for Surratt.

President Johnson overturned Aiken’s writ of habeas corpus for a civil trial, (a war-era administrative power ironically enacted by Lincoln) and then denied seeing the clemency plea signed by five members of the commission. These circumstances became issues in his impeachment proceedings two years after Mary’s execution.

On July 7, 1865, at 1:15 P.M., a military procession led the four condemned prisoners through the courtyard and up the steps to the gallows. Each prisoner’s ankles and wrists were bound by manacles. Mary Surratt led the way, wearing a black bombazine dress, black bonnet, and black veil. More than 1,000 people—including government officials, members of the U.S. armed forces, friends and family of the accused, official witnesses, and reporters—watched.

Lincoln_conspirators_execution. (Mary Surratt hanging on left in gallows).

 

Powell, whose dagger failed to kill Secretary of State William Seward, swore to Surratt’s innocence shortly before he was hanged. “The worst pretense of all was to imagine the Civil War over,” writes historian Walter McDougall. The North “embraced the myth that the nation’s sins had been purged by the blood of their soldiers and president.” 4

Thus purged some became avenging angels. Director Redford infuses The Conspirator with deep shafts of sepia light evoking the “magic realism” of the proceedings and as  beacons for the truth in an era when men could bury it in the cold tombs of intransigent,  pompous hatred.

With all the technology that assists us today, DNA testing included, the truth and justice can still be just as elusive.

And sadly, violence — both legally codified and criminal — against women remains a topic of serious debate in 2012.

 

1 Michael Les Benedict “Mary Surratt” The Oxford Guide: United States History, Ed. Paul Boyer, 2001 Oxford University press, 406

2 Kenneth C Davis Don’t Know Much About the Civil War Avon 1996 415

3 Laurie Verge, The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln And the Trial of Its Conspirators, A Special Edition Of The Trial Transcripts. Ed. Edward Steers Jr. 2003 University Press of Kentucky.

4 Walter McDougall, Throes of Democracy: the American Civil War Era 1892 to 1887, HarperCollins, 2008, 492