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.