SALT LAKE CITY – Salt Lake Acting Company’s world premiere of Grant & Twain, directed by Keven Myhre, is a dramatically charged look into the latter half of the nineteenth century, with a focus on two of America’s great men in history, Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.
Grant & Twain begins late in Ulysses S. Grant’s (Marshall Bell) life, after his role of union general in the Civil War and eighteenth President of the United States has passed. After being swindled out of all of his money in a Ponzi scheme, Grant is beginning to lose his admiration in the public eye, adding to his hardships. He is then solicited to write his personal memoirs, which he believes can help bring him out of his financial slum. Grant becomes very invested in his memoirs and receives immense help from his unlikely and loyal friend Mark Twain (Morgan Lund), the famous American novelist. The story focuses on their lives and friendship in the late nineteenth century, while including flashbacks to the Civil War and Grant’s time as General.
Elizabeth Diggs’s script for Grant & Twain received the prestigious Edgerton Foundation New American Plays award, and it’s easy to see why. The script is clearly written with strong characters and a sensible structure, although there was one moment in particular that was strange and pulled me out of the world being created. This was when Grant was baptized, and the audience hears a voice-over of the priest. As Mrs. Julia Dent Grant (Kathryn Atwood) stood at the front of the stage interacting with this voice, I felt confused as to why this style choice was occurring because it does not fit with the rest of what has been created in this play. However, a very strong tactic that Diggs employed was the use of flashbacks in the story. This broadened my understanding of Grant and helped me understand how he became the man he was in his old age and the experiences he discussed in his memoirs.
The acting in the show was nice, though it was apparent that the two lead actors were stumbling over their lines throughout the entire show. This was especially a problem with Bell, who had many instances where he struggled with his lines. I was disappointed to see this from an Equity company, as I would have expected the actors to be completely memorized and prepared. Overlooking that, I did appreciate the strong acting from both Bell and Lund. Based on the playwright’s note in the program and my own knowledge of these two characters, Bell and Lund seemed to portray the men quite accurately, mirroring the historical characters’ true personalities. They established these personalities very well creating strong, honest characters. I very much enjoyed seeing the contrast between the two, as they played very different characters. Grant was very reserved and always kept his morals a high priority. Twain was the opposite, so it was always fun to see Lund jump into the scene, energizing it with his active and humorous personality. Lund also had great stage business, making his character intriguing and exciting to watch. I felt Bell’s strong points were how seamlessly he was able to transition from his very sick character to his earlier self in the flashbacks of the war.
Grant & Twain is built on relationships. Along with Grant and Twain, there are also strong connections between Grant and his wife, and Grant and his servant, Harrison Terrell (played by Brien K. Jones). Grant and Twain obviously share a strong bond, with the actors having a nice chemistry between them, depicting their true friendship. Unfortunately, I wished for more chemistry with Bell and Atwood. It was clear that the couple was in love and cared for each other deeply, but I felt the history and familiarity was something missing in the relationship. Therefore, even though I could see that the two were in love, I could not fully believe it. Atwood’s performance was marvelous by herself, though, and she particularly represented the character’s sadness superbly. There were moments when I could see her face fall and melt into despair. Julia’s apparent naivety was also heartbreaking. Both Bell and Atwood depicted their characters as immensely loyal to Grant, emphasizing love as a theme in the play.
All of the design elements come together skillfully in this production. Set design by Keven Myhre is fairly simple, but of high quality with period set pieces that provide an accurate depiction of what Ulysses S. Grant’s house would actually look like. This is also true of the costume design by K. L. Alberts, giving the entire production a realistic touch. The lighting (design by James M. Craig) was pleasantly subtle, and nicely aided with the scene changes and helping the audience know the time of day, which I particularly appreciated after quick scene changes. The projections were also very nice in this production in establishing the setting and year of each flashback’s action. The sound design by Josh Martin also aided the show in a similar way the lighting did, helping the audience know when a flashback or the present time was taking place.
Grant & Twain is mostly a high quality production, providing a valuable look at American history. The play recalls the hardships of war and the life of a military leader. It also teaches us the value of meaningful, deep relationships. I find it inspiring that because Ulysses S. Grant wrote his memoirs, Americans now have this history, and I commend Diggs for capturing this on stage. I would certainly recommend this production to mature audiences interested in this topic of American history. However, Grant & Twain is an intellectual drama, and the casual theatregoer may not be intrigued enough with the content of the piece.