THE TRIALS OF SAM HOUSTONby Aaron Loeb
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Kevin Moriarty
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Costume Design by Jen Caprio
Sound Design and Original Music by Ryan Rumery
Wig, Hair and Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas
Young Sam Houston – Steven Michael Walters
Young Jeff Hamilton/Joseph Vance/Henry – Ace Aderson
George Chilton/Andrew Stevenson/Dr. Beanes – Kieran Connolly
Lina Graves/John Quincy Adams – Liz Mikel
McKell/James K. Polk – Alex Organ
Old Jeff Hamilton/Old Sam Houston/Andrew Jackson – Charlie Robinson
Stanbery/James Wayne/Mr. Skinner/Mrs. Vance – David Coffee
Francis Scott Key/Young Francis/Patricia Caras/Louisa Adams – Kate Wetherhead
Reviewed Performance: 4/27/2018
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Impeccable directing, strong acting, Broadway quality production values, the Dallas Theater Center can always be counted on to provide a first-rate theatrical experience. They won a Regional Theater Tony Award for their quality work. The Trials of Sam Houston is no exception. All the actors are focused, make strong, believable choices and embody fully fleshed-out characters – and in this show, more than one in most cases.
The scenery, by Broadway veteran and multiple Tony award nominee and winner, Beowulf Boritt, is exciting, creates an environment ripe for storytelling, and serves the production exceedingly well. Costumes by Jen Caprio, lighting by Jeff Croiter, music and sound design by Ryan Rumery, and wig, hair and make-up design by J. Jared Janas all come together to create stunning visuals. Several of these designers have ties to Broadway, and all to regional theater. Their work displays evident artistry combined with technical skill, and all of it serves the production in specific and enhancing ways.
The complex and myriad events of Sam Houston’s life do not make for a quick and easy “beginning, middle and end” story, and the trials referred to in the play’s title, both legal and in his life, are not easily condensed into an evening’s entertainment.
In adapting this story to the stage, even concentrating on the major decision by your protagonist concerning secession, where do you put the focus? Make it strictly a depiction of historical fact and draw parallels with today, raise moral questions, and search for answers? How much do you show of Houston’s personal life to illuminate the action and will that sidetrack the political story or clarify it?
“I am aware that in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall stand very much alone,” he said. Certainly an important part of Houston’s life was his relationship with Native American tribes. In light of recent actions against native peoples, how much does a playwright incorporate in putting together a script? Concentrate on Houston’s drinking? His attitude toward slavery? What about his life in Texas and its formation? How does Francis Scott Key and his poem about the American flag fit into Houston’s story?
Perhaps because of all of this, the script in its present form presents some problems for me. There is so much information, and so many areas that are covered that I lost the focus at times. After years of work and evidence of extensive research, the script is certainly strong in lots of ways with moments of wit and high drama (even if the joke about how difficult The Star Spangled Banner is to sing is repeated too often.) The constant juxtaposition of time and place, and the actors playing many different characters, is at times exhilarating, and at other times distracting. I feel certain that a tighter, more cohesive script can be put together from this fascinating beginning. And it’s certainly true that opening night’s audience gave the show a standing ovation.
Director Kevin Moriarty does his consistently outstanding job of directing by creating exciting stage pictures, making creative use of the space, always keeping the focus where it needs to be, building moments, and making the arc of the story clear. He gets uniformly impressive performances from his experienced cast, and stellar work from his production team.
Steven Michael Walters is strong, resolute and all too human as Young Sam Houston in a dominating performance that serves as the center of the presentation. Alex Organ and Liz Mikel are their usual consummate professional best in supporting roles. Clearly defined and well-developed characterizations in multiple roles are also turned in by Ace Anderson, David Coffee, Kate Wetherhead and Kieran Connolly. Each is given moments to shine, and they take them with assurance. Charlie Robinson as Old Jeff Hamilton, Old Sam Houston, and Andrew Jackson appeared to be struggling for lines at times on opening night, something I feel certain will rectify itself as the run progresses. His is a commanding stage presence and strong vocal asset to the show.
The Dallas Theater Center has the clout and the obligation to present new and challenging work to the community, and they have never shirked from that responsibility. Audiences will find The Trials of Sam Houston another commendable addition to their list of new works. The show presents historical events worth reviewing, and moral conundrums worthy of contemplation.
More quotes from Sam Houston:
“The benefits of education and of useful knowledge, generally diffused through a community, are essential to the preservation of a free government.”
“Nothing can conduce more to the order and stability of a government than the simplicity of the laws, the proper definition of rights, and their impartial and consistent administration.”
“Remember that whatever may be said by a lady or her friends, it is not part of conduct of a gallant or generous man to take up arms against a woman.”
“I would give no thought of what the world might say of me, if I could only transmit to posterity the reputation of an honest man.”
Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd
Dallas, TX 75204
Final Performance, May 13, 2018
Tickets $17-$98, subject to change
Tickets and information at www.DallasTheaterCenter.org