Theater Review: “Grinder’s Stand” @ Bridge Street Theatre, 10/9/15
Review by Greg Haymes
It’s been 36 years since Oakley Hall III’s play “Grinder’s Stand” had its premiere at Lexington Conservatory Theatre, an upstart summer company in the Catskills, which later morphed into Albany’s Capital Repertory Theatre.
And quite a lot of what happened in 1979 now seems dated, totally obsolete or just downright silly. The debut of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, President Jimmy Carter attacked by a swamp rabbit… “Grinder’s Stand” is not one of those things.
The eloquent verse play takes place in 1809, chronicling the final days of Meriwether Lewis (deftly portrayed by William Dobbins), who famously co-led the Lewis & Clark expedition six years previous. “Any man who would walk to Oregon and back would have to have his brain – and his testicles – strapped on pretty tight,” as the play points out.
But a desperate Lewis – now Governor of Upper Louisiana on the verge of bankruptcy having payment of his bills denied by President James Madison – must deal with a number of obstacles from within is own inner circle, as well as the federal government and his own laudanum addiction as he makes his way to Washington, DC to plead his case for more funds. And for Lewis, it proves to be a life-or-death trek even more hazardous than his previous expedition to the west coast.
Ambition, poison, politics and betrayal all play a part, but ultimately it’s a play about dreams that evaporate like morning fog and the loss of nameless things.
Kaligua Arts’ production at the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill is an absolute knock-out. Costumes by Kaitlyn Day seem period perfect, and the stage set of rough hewn wood and branches (even the seats at the tavern are tree stumps) underscores the raw nature of the play as well as the historical times.
Director John Sowle handles the seven-member cast with aplomb, making the most of a wide, narrow stage. And the actors – especially Dobbins, Kaliguga Arts co-founder Steven Patterson (an original member of the Lexington Conservatory Theatre) as the boatman Robert Smith and the marvelous Nancy Rothman as Mrs. Grinder (her forthright courtship scene with Dobbins is the evening’s highwater mark) – deliver excellent performances brimming over with emotional intensity, as well as intelligence.
The play has rarely been seen – Kaligula Arts’ revival is only the fourth production – but it deserves a wide audience, especially amid the current climate of political back-stabbing and the blockbuster Broadway success of “Hamilton,” another versified look back at the history of a still-being-born America.
Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Paul Lamar’s review at The Daily Gazette: “If I say that the sixth scene of Act 2 of ‘Grinder’s Stand’ is the place that suddenly throws into relief everything that has previously happened, it’s not to suggest that getting there is an uninteresting journey. No. Playwright Oakley Hall III has already captured our attention about the plight of 35-year-old Meriwether Lewis (William Dobbins) with themes of fame, jealousy, betrayal, addiction and political intrigue in 1809. But it’s in Lewis’ touching conversation with Mrs. Grinder (Nancy Rothman), a widowed innkeeper, that we do more than admire the public man: We feel for the man himself. It’s here, too, that some of Hall’s best lines about the play’s themes emerge and, subtly, comment on contemporary America: ‘the era of the shrinkin’ man,’ and ‘There are no ethics here, only survival,’ and ‘There are frontiers in every direction.'”