What if Edgar Allen Poe, a new student and earnest young writer at the University of Virginia, went to Monticello in July 1826 to help Thomas Jefferson with an important task. It could have happened, says playwright Thomas Geoghegan, who conjures this event in his play Monticello, directed by Anthony Irons.
The two-act play, staged in a Lakeview church basement, speculates on what might have happened. Marty Lodge plays the former president, who has suffered a stroke but is able to converse in French. His estate Monticello is deep in debt and his daughter Martha (Lori McClain) is afraid the family will lose the property. Since the approaching July 4 will be the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is expected to issue a statement confirming his masterpiece of revolutionary writing.
Jefferson’s nephew, Randolph (Glenn Garrabrant), is more than willing to buy the Monticello debt and take over the plantation, especially the slave Abby (Anji White). Randolph, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, wants the former president to “clarify” his intent about the word “equal” (as in “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”) and validate states’ rights in slavery over federal policy. Randolph has written his own clarification to the Declaration of Independence and he wants his uncle to sign it.
Into this hornets’ nest, Geoghegan speculates, steps young Edgar Allen Poe (Jeff Kurysz), who writes poems and stories and has an interest in science fiction. (He’s interested in space travel, specifically, traveling to the moon by hot-air balloon.) Jefferson was known to invite UVa students to dine with him and it may well have been Poe’s turn. Martha wants Poe to draft something close to Randolph’s clarification and persuade Jefferson to sign it and thus save Monticello and its slaves from being sold off.
Will Poe succeed in getting the increasingly ill Jefferson to sign something that will save Monticello? Poe, who says he is a confirmed abstainer, imbibes freely from Jefferson’s collection of fine wines and creates a document. A certain amount of magical realism pervades the hours leading up to Jefferson’s death on July 4, 1826. (That is not a spoiler; it’s history.)
The downstairs theater at St. Bonaventure Church has a wide performance space, which is designed by Carl Ulazek as a sitting room at Monticello. Through some awkward entrances and exits, the space also serves as Jefferson’s bedroom and wine cellar. Lighting is by Richard Norwood and sound by Razor Wintercastle. Jos Banks designed the costumes.
The script is larded with Poe puns and references, as well as jabs about Hamilton, reflecting the animosity between the two founding fathers—the urban Federalist Hamilton and the rural Republican Jefferson. Geoghegan wrote the play two years ago and says he had the idea before that—well before Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton made its first appearance at the Public Theatre in New York.
For indeed, Geoghegan says, even now in the Trump era, the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, is the greatest of all literary calls to resist and Jefferson was the leader of the Second Resistance, as well as the First. He says the “Second Resistance” was to Federalists who displaced the royalists as the enemies of the left. Geoghegan has placed his script online so that you can download and read it.
Geoghegan is a Chicago labor lawyer who has represented labor unions and employee groups in many significant cases in various United States district courts and courts of appeals. He represented Friends of the Parks in its successful suit to block the Chicago Park District from approving construction of the Lucas museum on park land. He has written six books, including Which Side Are You On? (1991), cited by the National Book Critics Circle as one of the best five non-fiction books that year. His latest book, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement, was released in December 2014.
Monticello runs two hours with one intermission at St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (theater entrance is on Marshfield). Performances are Thursday-Sunday through September 3. Tickets are $20 with student discounts available.