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Theater review: SLAC handsomely stages 'Grant & Twain'

“Grant & Twain” by Elizabeth Diggs, Salt Lake Acting Company, through March 2, $15–$42, 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org

While the topic of this Mark Twain quote is a published work, the instruction applies to anyone who sits at a keyboard: “You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it.” Then, exhibiting his trademark sly irreverence, he added: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and they command attention.”

Playwright Elizabeth Diggs has devised a splendid concept in her new play, and while it delivers some thunderous moments with flashes of lightning, this audience member was not wholly captivated with this first staging.

“Grant & Twain” is a handsomely staged world premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company. Ulysses S. Grant and Twain are giant American figures, and though their personalities were at odds, they shared a deep friendship. The play chronicles the writing of Grant’s personal memoirs with Twain overseeing their publication. Also involved is Brig. Gen. Adam Badeau, who had earlier assisted with the manuscript's research and editing.

The play reveals the tension among the three men, but there's no full development into satisfying, memorable drama and no readily apparent unifying theme.

A recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts, Diggs became enamored with Grant by reading his memoir, which was an immediate success and earned his widow what was then the single largest royalty check ever paid.

However, the playwright is overly reverent to Grant. Historians view his successes and failures equally, but there is little mention in the play of his military achievements or the presidency that was plagued with corruption and scandal.

The three primary characters of "Grant & Twain" are joined by Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant; his aide, Harrison Terrell, and an Army private named Williams Perkins Ingersoll, who is a composite of Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Grant’s efforts as a president were elevated by his support for African-American civil rights. Terrell, a black man, faithfully served Grant and is always at his side during the play, yet no drama is developed between the two men and no explanation of Terrell’s loyalty provided.

Grant had a lovely relationship with his wife, but that doesn’t appear to be a meaningful aspect of the play.

Flashback scenes to a bloody and contentious battle are incorporated but are not a useful element.

What is most admirable is SLAC’s production. Under Keven Myhre’s very fine direction, nearly every actor on stage displays wonderful skills, and they warmly portray individually intriguing characters. Morgan Lund excels as Twain and easily re-creates the relaxed charm and wit of the amazingly colorful author. As Mrs. Grant, Kathryn Atwood is equally gifted in establishing a wholly believable character, but she is given little function in the play. Ryon Sharette, a recent University of Utah graduate, tackles the role of the young soldier with startling ability.

Less successful is Marshall Bell. There’s a nearly uniform monotone to Bell’s limp delivery as Grant. Spencer’s near-central Badeau is a woefully underwritten character, and Jones is given little more to do than deliver occasional refreshments and stand in the background.

Each of the characters cries out for a potent, insightful monologue or revealing interactions that are never seen.

SLAC is to be applauded for championing new works and for its efforts to develop and create many powerful productions. “Grant & Twain” is staged with the company’s standard excellence: largely tremendous performances, grand costuming by K.L. Alberts and a simple yet effective set design by Myhre. The company’s loyal fan base will appreciate these accomplishments.