A new and intimate production of 1776 succeeds in reminding us that the founding fathers were real people with human problems who managed to make the close decisions that brought about independence. E.D.G.E. Theatre’s excellent election-year production is staged in Mary’s Attic, a tiny but comfortable performance space above a restaurant in Andersonville.
The setting is the room where the Continental Congress is meeting during a hot Philadelphia summer to discuss, among other things, a resolution to declare independence. Congressmen sit amongst the audience, adding chumminess and veritas to the theatrical experience. My friend and I sat next to Robert Livingston of New York (Blake Holen) and Samuel Chase of Maryland (Matthew Holmes).
The talented cast is led by Jonathan Crabtree as John Adams, Edward Kuffert as Benjamin Franklin, Jack Wright as Thomas Jefferson and Adam Hoak as John Dickinson, the Pennsylvanian who prefers to remain part of the British empire. (Terry McEnroe plays Adams on Saturdays and most Fridays.) Director Melissa Crabtree does a spectacular job of blocking and moving the actors around the tiny space.
The production is staged in modern dress and female actors play some of the all-male cast. Coco Kasperowicz is cartoonishly funny as the boozy Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who needs his rum, no matter the time of day. Alexandra T. Cross is convincing as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, including performing “Molasses to Rum,” about the northern states’ role in the triangle trade. Melissa Paris as Abigail Adams and Theresa Egan as Martha Jefferson both do an excellent job portraying the colonial spouses in modern dress.
The 1969 Tony-award winning play by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone has no doubt had more elaborate productions—on large proscenium stages with actors in period dress—but rarely one that relates so well to its audience. And even though we know how the story ends, the play succeeds in building tension through the debates and votes.
The production includes some other modern touches. The military courier (Laura Jewell) delivers messages from General Washington dressed in camo fatigues. Her song, “Mama, Look Sharp,” is beautifully performed and moving. After a Congressional break, Samuel Chase dines on a basket of burger and fries. Franklin’s portrait is being created with a smartphone. The North Carolina and South Carolina delegates play chess to pass the time, while Jefferson reads a contemporary book and president John Hancock (David Feiler) reads a copy of today’s newspaper.
The 1776 music, directed by Linnea Carrera, features Daniel Brottman on piano, Matthew Bordoshuk on flute and Ilana Goldstein on violin. Melissa Crabtree also handles costuming and David Trudeau is lighting designer.
As July 4th approaches in the Continental Congress, I couldn’t help but think of Stan Freberg’s spoken word album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. One of my favorite songs has always been “A Man Can’t Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days,” where Jefferson tries to persuade Franklin to sign the Declaration of Independence (before the holiday weekend).
It wouldn’t be fair to compare this intimate production of 1776 to the behemoth from Broadway that’s opening here in a few weeks. But both Hamilton and 1776 can teach or remind us of a lot about our history. In 1776, for instance, the only way the resolution for independence passes the Continental Congress is by Adams and Jefferson giving up the “slavery clause,” which would have abolished the slave trade in principle.
E.D.G.E. Theatre’s 1776 continues in Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., through September 17 with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7pm. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with no intermission. The production will be remounted during election week, with performances Wednesday-Friday, November 9-11. Tickets for $22 can be purchased at edgeoforion.com. Whether or not you get tickets to Hamilton, this production of 1776 is a theatrical treat—as well as a bargain.