Thursday, October 5, 2017

Premiere of 'Thomas and Sally' casts Jefferson in new light

Sally (Tara Pacheco) listens to her brother James (William Hodgson) in "Thomas and Sally." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

“Thomas and Sally” is an intriguing look at Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave with whom he had six children after the death of his wife.

In the world premiere production by Marin Theatre Company, playwright Thomas Bradshaw starts this fictionalized but fact-based history as a conversation between two college roommates in modern times.

One of them, Karen (Rosie Hallett), is writing a paper about Jefferson. Her roommate, Simone (Ella Dershowitz), says she descended from one of Thomas and Sally’s children and relates his story as she knows it.

Much of the action takes place as the two women watch from the sidelines, but both assume roles in the action, too.

Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) is perhaps best known for writing the Declaration of Independence and serving as president, among other assignments in the country’s early days.

He wanted to abolish slavery, but he owned slaves. And though the Declaration of Independence says “all men are created equal,” he believed that full-blooded Negroes were intellectually inferior to people who were white or who had some white blood. 

This apparent hypocrisy is one of the interesting issues in the play.

There’s much exposition, but it works well in the context of the action, which takes place mostly at Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia and in France, where he served as American ambassador as the French Revolution was brewing.

France is where he became involved with 15-year-old Sally (Tara Pacheco), who was among the slaves who journeyed with him. Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha (Dershowitz).

Among the Founding Fathers in the play are Benjamin Franklin (Robert Sicular) and John Adams (Scott Coopwood).

Skillfully directed by Jasson Minadakis, all of the actors, many in several roles, are noteworthy, showing their versatility. Besides those already named, they include L. Peter Callender, William Hodgson, Cameron Matthews and Charlette Speigner.

One caveat: Some adult themes and unnecessary male nudity make this play unsuitable for the younger set.

Production values are generally high, especially the set by Sean Fanning and costumes by Ashley Holvick. The sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker features snippets of Mozart. However, some lighting by Mike Post is too dim.

Running about two and a half hours with two intermissions, the play humanizes the oft-idealized Thomas Jefferson and offers insight into his life and times.

It also offers comments relevant to current events. The ones that drew knowing laughter on opening night concerned the Electoral College and its potential effects.

“Thomas and Sally” continues through Oct. 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit