John Adams was a person with such a mix of charisma, passion and conviction that he was often thought obnoxious by his peers. Playing such a character was both a difficulty and, ultimately, a success for Caleb Nelson when he portrayed John Adams in “1776” at Beverly’s Terrace Plaza Playhouse in Washington Terrace.
“1776,” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, is the story of the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence by the continental congress.
The simple wainscoting and neutral colors on the set provided the right backdrop to a period piece. The view was complete with desks and chairs, quills and inkwells, further setting the mood.
Assembling a cast of 24 men and only two women can make “1776” a rather hard show to direct for a community theaters. Director Leslie Richards not only assembled a cast but found men with strong unified voices and enough character to put themselves into such esteemed and disparate character types.
The stage direction was effective and well suited for the open stage of the T. P. Playhouse. It kept sight lines open and directed action in a skillful manner so that scene changes moved smoothly and needed only the shortest of blackouts, which allowed the audience to stay engaged in the story.
The costumes were beautifully done, and while we often think of those times as a simpler color palate, the research by the design crew allowed for a great variety in colors that was visually stunning and still very well rooted in the period of the late 18th century.
The moment when all of those strong male voices joined in the opening number, “Sit Down John,” was beautiful. The boisterousness of so many male singers was powerful and moving.
Nelson’s portrayal of Adams was excellent in expressing the frustration with the lack of action on the part of the Congress. J. Michael Stevens as Benjamin Franklin brought the subtle humor and efficiency of manner that Franklin was known for.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, played by Andrew J. Cole, might be considered the villain of the piece. Cole’s rendition was smooth and carried with it the manner of a true Tory, being loyal to the crown, but not to a fault because Dickinson believed what he said. When Cole’s character resolved to fight, despite losing the vote to those wishing to be independent, we saw the fortitude with which men fought and their loyalty to their causes and their neighbors.
It would be wrong to not include Sally Paskin’s portrayal of Abigail Adams. Her attitude helped to teach that these were pig-headed, obstinate men, and it often fell to the intelligence of women like Abigail (John Adams’ wife) to help cool heads and bring reason to the debate.
That being said, these were men and women with faults. At times in the play, a note came out strained or a word fumbled, but it fit the men that they were portraying. When I’d catch a moment like that, I wondered if some of them weren’t planned to show that these people were no different than us. It’s wonderful to see.
In closing, if there is only one reason to see this play, and there are many, it was the song at the end of Act 1, “Momma Look Sharp,” sung by Matt Taylor in continental army uniform. It was poignant and brought tears to more than one eye. It’s a beautiful moment that reminds us of the young men and women who fight for the causes we call on our government to debate and argue while many are in the safety of their homes or of Washington DC. These soldiers die or watch their comrades die to preserve what we only talk about. I won’t forget the lesson anytime soon.
“1776” is playing at Beverly’s Terrace Plaza Playhouse, 99. E. 4700 S. in Washington Terrace on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 25 2015—No shows on July 4 or 24. For Tickets and information, call 801-393-0070 or visit terraceplayhouse.com.