×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Thurgood

There are two major figures on stage for the world preem of "Thurgood" at the Westport Country Playhouse. One is, of course, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The other is that of James Earl Jones whose presence and talent give the piece solid B.O. appeal and an added dimension not always in evidence in the script.

With:
Thurgood Marshall - James Earl Jones

There are two major figures on stage for the world preem of “Thurgood” at the Westport Country Playhouse. One is, of course, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — the subject of this one-hander bio-play by first-time playwright George Stevens Jr., former American Film Institute helmer and son of the famed film director. The other is that of James Earl Jones whose presence and talent give the piece solid B.O. appeal and an added dimension not always in evidence in the script.

At least at this point in its development, more judicial work needs to be done to flesh out the character of the first African-American on this country’s high court, to make it more than a respectable live visit to the History Channel.

What the play needs is to dig deeper into the complexities of Marshall and to make his story more of an artful whole. Right now the two-act show gives a straightforward biographical account of the man, the grandson of a former slave, who challenged segregation and rose to the highest bench of the land.

But the paradoxes of the man are merely hinted at. Overriding themes of his life are not yet sharpened, and details of his personal life — perhaps out of respect to still-living relatives — are approached with discretion bordering on blandness. Aside from a few playful lines about his love of women and drink, this story centers almost exclusively on Marshall’s career in law and the evolution of civil rights in the 20th century.

Stevens takes Marshall from his Baltimore youth, where he was denied the college of his choice because of his race, to the legal leadership of the NAACP, to his arguing the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, to his appointment and tenure on the high bench.

The play begins with Jones’ Marshall bursting onto Allen Moyer’s handsome set with a giant all-white Jasper Johns American flag as a backdrop. (Elaine J. McCarthy’s evocative projections and Brian Nason’s lighting also add to the quality of the production.) Stevens wisely avoids any strained “set-up” for the piece and presents a vivid, energetic Marshall as simply “getting right to it” and relaying his life story to the audience.

What makes the personal narrative and the character so appealing is Marshall’s straight-forward, no-nonsense approach, his passionate belief in the law and his wicked sense of humor, all expertly embodied by Jones.

Despite helmer Leonard Foglia’s efforts to keep the stories flowing smoothly and a sense of fluidity and grace of Jones’ movements on stage, there’s still the lurching feel of a cut-and-paste script. So far Stevens has not released himself from the role of assembler of anecdotes to playwright with a point of view and an artful style.

There are also some additional tightening and transitions to be made — and giving the last words of the play to an anonymous voiceover as Jones’ Marshall departs the stage seems to rob both actor and aud of a final emotional flourish.

What the production has despite its flaws is Jones, who inhabits the charismatic jurist fully, giving him more than simply a profound voice (stuffy because of a cold and only slightly diminished on press night).

Jones fills the slightest incident and digression with meaning and significance; his account of arguing the segregation case before the Supreme Court is the play’s highlight. Jones also seems to relish a Marshall prone to impersonating such historic figures as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, LBJ and John W. Davis, the Southern attorney who argued in favor of segregation. However, more time is needed for the actor to feel completely at home with the demands of the massive biography.

It’s a biography worth telling and retelling — especially in light of current politics and today’s Supreme Court. To make it the kind of evening that rises beyond non-fiction drama to the level of theatrical wonder, it needs something more. But at least with Jones, it’s almost enough.

Thurgood

Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn.; 575 seats, $65 top

Production: A Westport Country Playhouse presentation with Boyett Ostar Prods. of a play in two acts by George Stevens Jr. Directed by Leonard Foglia.

Creative: Sets, Allen Moyer; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Brian Nason; projections, Elaine J. McCarthy; sound, Ryan Rumery; production stage manager, Marti McIntosh. Reviewed, opened May 11, 2006. Runs through May 21, 2006. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast: Thurgood Marshall - James Earl Jones

More Legit

  • Bryan Cranston on the Exhausting Joys

    Listen: Bryan Cranston on the Exhausting Joys of Broadway

    For anyone who doubts that being a Broadway actor can be grueling, let Bryan Cranston set you straight. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “There is a cumulative effect of fatigue that happens on the Broadway schedule that no amount of sleep the night before is going to wash away,” the Emmy and Tony-winning actor [...]

  • Jeff Daniels Variety Broadway to Kill

    How 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Beat the Odds to Deliver a Broadway Smash

    Jeff Daniels slumps into a chair in the Shubert Theatre, grasping an oversize Starbucks and looking bone-crushingly exhausted. His eyelids are heavy, and he seems like a man in desperate need of rest. It’s easy to understand why. It’s late March, and Daniels has just given his 100th Broadway performance as Atticus Finch, the small-town attorney [...]

  • ZZ Top, Caesars Entertainment Team on

    ZZ Top, Caesars Team for Jukebox Musical 'Sharp Dressed Man' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees ZZ Top and Caesars Entertainment are developing “Sharp Dressed Man,” a jukebox musical set to open next year in Las Vegas featuring the band’s greatest hits. Members Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard are all serving as executive producers. “Sharp Dressed Man” is described as an “outrageous, [...]

  • Williamstown Theater Festival 2016 season

    Marisa Tomei Starring in Broadway Revival of 'The Rose Tattoo'

    Marisa Tomei will star in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” The Oscar-winning actress will play Serafina, a part previously performed by the likes of Maureen Stapleton and Anna Magnani. It’s also a role that Tomei is familiar with, having starred in a Williamstown Theatre Festival production in 2016. “The Rose Tattoo” [...]

  • White Pearl review

    London Theater Review: 'White Pearl'

    Playwright Anchuli Felicia King dismantles the Asian market in this misfiring satire at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “White Pearl” makes a case that those seeking to make inroads into the Far East, perceiving a new El Dorado, are no better that colonial conquistadors of an earlier age — and entirely unequipped to understand the specifics [...]

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content