The Guthrie Theater hosts its first of two world Premieres of the season which also marks their 60th year. Sally & Tom is a play about a play about the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. There are basically two stories being told, that which is the play being rehearsed and then, the story of the theater company that is mounting the production. It’s an extremely effective way to comment on the historical through the contemporary mindset and the parallels keep revealing themselves the more you meditate on them. A powerful and playful script brought to life by an exemplary cast. As with their first production of the year Vietgone, the only fault I can find with the cast is the under representation of local talent. Only Guthrie regular Sun Mee Chomet and relative newcomer to the Twin cities Daniel Petzold in a cast of eight are not imported for the production. Of course once again they are all brilliant so it’s hard to raise too much of an issue. The season is off to a positive start as the Guthrie seems to be embracing diversity, not only in cast, but in the stories it is telling and the behind the scenes talent who are bringing these stories to the stage.
Sally & Tom is written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog, which is just one of the many honors her writing has garnered. After seeing this play, it’s not hard to see why she is such an honored writer. Each of the stories on view are more or less straightforward and not overly complex in and of themselves. The complexity comes in the way in which the stories interact, and the commentary that isn’t stated but implied between them. The play that the theater company is putting on and of which we see large portions of performed during rehearsals is powerful and thought provoking as you can imagine. The part of the play that takes place outside of the play within a play is more light hearted on the surface but on reflection there are some modern day parallels. To be fair, there is nothing equivalent to the impact of slavery in the modern thread. But what’s clever is the way we are given real everyday relatable problems that help us understand that world of the past while also showing us the different option the modern day counterparts have. Just Looking at the relationships between Sally and Tom and the actors who are playing them, Luce and Mike, who are also the Writer and Director of the play. Luce has options Sally doesn’t in terms of her relationship. Mike uses financial excuses to try and justify his worst behavior just as Jefferson did. There is also along the way a nice examination of how art is created and in what must be a playwrights dream, there is a speech in the play within the play that is powerful and wonderfully performed. Parks, finds a way to have her cake and eat it too, by having the speech which really is too long and on the nose, performed in rehearsal and then cut from the play as it rightly should be.
As I’ve said, the cast is fantastic. Kristen Ariza as Luce and Sally Hemings, Amari Cheatom as Kwame and James Hemings, and Luke Robertson as Mike and Thomas Jefferson shine in the largest parts. Cheatom in particular gets to have that speech I wrote of earlier and he delivers it brilliantly as the character James Hemmings, but he’s also equally convincing playing the almost too cool for the production actor Kwame. I’d like to spotlight our local talent a little. Sun Mee Chomet plays Scout who in the play within a play is performing the role of Polly, Jefferson’s youngest daughter while also stage managing the show. she gets a nice little story thread of her own and makes the most of it. She comes to the realization that having worked her way up in the company to an onstage role, that is where she truely aspires to be. When she declares that in the show it’s a testament to the performer that the moment moves us. Chomet is a wonderful character actor, always finding a way to make an impression and endear herself to the audience even without a lot of dialogue or stage time. Daniel Petzold plays, as the actor character Geoff states, many different roles. I don’t know what it is about Petzold, but he’s quickly becoming a favorite. This is his third performance I’ve seen and in each one he brings something special. Sometimes there are performers that just become your favorites, the ones who you’ll go to a show just to see what they will do with a role. Petzold seems destined to join that list for me alongside other local favorites Tyler Michaels King, Sally Wingert, Nissa Nordland Morgan, Sam Landman, Joy Dolo Anfinson, Tom Reed, Lily Tung Crystal…. OK there are more but I digress. Petzold does indeed play many different roles within the play within a play, but it’s his role as the actor Geoff that really captures the audience’s attention. Making the most of the comedic relief bits he’s given, he also has a wonderfully sweet romantic thread that works perfectly due to the vulnerability he infuses the character with.
Director Steve H. Broadnax III makes his Guthrie debut, hopefully they coax him back for future shows. This is a wonderfully staged production, Broadnax uses the space creatively allowing the stage to be a stage for a play with scenery that drops in as needed, but it also becomes the stage of a rehearsal in a theatre, we have lights that drop down, when we suddenly hear the stage manager call to take 10 (minutes). The flow between the actors performing the play and the actors working on the play is masterfully worked. At times it so jarring because we forgot that the play within the play, was a play within a play (my God the play within a play thing is getting ridiculous isn’t it?) we are so wrapped up in it. The Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez and Lighting Design by Alan C. Edwards are as flawless as we have come to expect from a Guthrie production. They work beautifully together to create this world of theatre onstage, backstage, rehearsal, performance, they get the feel of all these moments just right.
Sally & Tom runs through November 6th at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets got to https://www.guthrietheater.org/shows-and-tickets/2022-2023-season/sally–tom/.
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