As I described the play currently being staged at the Station Theatre to friends and family this weekend, I frequently found myself unintentionally arriving at a moment of awkward silence after I had explained that it was about Jefferson, Dickens, and Tolstoy debating theology for 80 minutes. Each time my listener looked at me with an expression of definite uncertainty and sometimes even vague horror. “But it’s funny!” I would add brightly, at which point their faces relaxed with relief. Ah, I could see them thinking, that’s okay then.
It’s certainly true that the basic plot outline of Scott Carter’s The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy: Discord doesn’t sound like a particularly light-hearted time at the theater: in the moments after their deaths, each of the three famous men arrives in the same sparsely decorated room containing only a table, three chairs, and a mirror along one wall. The door locks behind them and the trio must figure out together what exactly needs to happen in order for the door to unlock so they can move on to whatever better afterlife awaits them. They assume that the answer lies in discovering what ties them together, and after some trading of biographical facts discover that each of them edited his own “best parts only” version of the Christian Gospel. This leads them to embark on some weighty theological discussions as each man outlines his take on the life of Christ to the other two.
Disagreements crop up quickly as the men discover that they can’t even agree on what exactly was “in the Beginning”—Reason? The Word? Spirit? Thomas Jefferson insists on applying logic to everything while Charles Dickens’ flair for the dramatic leads him to cling to the very supernatural passages that Jefferson most dislikes. Leo Tolstoy, meanwhile, argues that the meaning of life lies in the three little words that are the heart of his own Gospel (which he’s not in any hurry to confide) and quickly gets frustrated with the others’ approaches as well as their insistence on calling him “Count”. Ultimately, however, it seems that in this strange room the theology each man favored in life may not matter as much as the details of how he lived.
This is an intellectual play, probably most enjoyable to those with a strong pre-existing interest in literature or theology, but there’s enough exposition given about the men’s lives that no one should feel lost regardless of the level of knowledge they bring with them to the theater. I know quite a bit about both Jefferson and Dickens but have never really taken to Tolstoy, but I never felt like my ignorance of his life was affecting my appreciation of the character or plot.
The play is also truly very funny. The conflicts between the three men are often expressed in snappy one-liners and the entire affair consistently has an air of the absurd, thanks in part to captions that appear on the back wall of the room during breaks in the action. (“THEY PACE,” for example.) Though things do get quite serious at moments, for most of the play there was never a long break at all between one big audience laugh and the next.
The Celebration Company’s production of Discord matches first-time director Lindsey Gates-Markel with three veteran local actors: Steven M. Keen as Thomas Jefferson, Gary Ambler as Charles Dickens, and David Barkley as Leo Tolstoy. It’s definitely a pleasure to watch this experienced cast at work. Keen’s tightly controlled mannerisms and authoritative air as Jefferson convincingly convey a man who is used to being a leader despite his constant protestations of hating public speaking. One of the most emotional moments of the play for me was when Keen allows an overwhelmed and heartbroken Jefferson’s emotions to ever-so-briefly play across his face after being confronted with Dickens’ knowledge of America’s fate after Jefferson’s death. As for Dickens, I felt like he was really kind of a jerk, which is a tribute to Ambler’s all-in commitment to the play’s take on Dickens as ridiculously self-centered and pompous (the Dickens of this play seemed to me to almost be a Dickensian take on Dickens, an exaggerated caricature of the real man). Ambler soaks up the plentiful laughter he draws with Dickens’ unending references to his own work and hammy performance of his Gospel (written by Dickens for his children), but also masterfully switches gears to become an intense and unrelenting interrogator when the trio starts examining the relationship between their Gospels and their own lives. Barkley’s Tolstoy seems in some ways to be the most complicated of the three figures, dressed in simple peasant garb and very vocally devout while also possessing a temper that always bubbles just beneath the surface. Barkley balanced the different aspects of Tolstoy’s personality well and managed to make Tolstoy a compelling presence even when the character was just sitting and listening. I found myself looking over to him frequently to see his reactions to what the other characters were doing.
The technical side of the production ably complemented these performances. Though Discord’s set is fairly simple, it did hold some secrets and the overall design suited the show well: while the room is not manifestly unpleasant, it definitely doesn’t seem like a place where one would wish to spend eternity, especially with strangers. (After commenting on the surprise of the afterlife being “a room” Dickens adds glumly, “And not even a room of one’s own!”) Malia Andrus’s costumes also worked well and helped quickly establish character, from the simple white tunic of Tolstoy to the garish colors favored by Dickens. Sound or lighting changes flawlessly indicated alterations to the characters’ circumstances and/or time passing.
The ultimate resolution of the story unfortunately felt a little preachy and disappointing to me, but the journey to get there held my interest, and this is definitely a play that will give you something to talk to your companions about after you leave the theater. Discord is a satisfying conclusion to this season at the Station Theatre and is well worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something both intellectually stimulating and highly entertaining.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy: Discord continues its run for the next two weeks at the Station Theatre with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Tickets are $10 for shows on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and $15 for Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling (217) 384-4000.
About Mara Bandy:
Mara Bandy is an Arts Writer for Smile Politely. Find her online at:
All photos by Scott Wells:
Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.