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Weekend Reviews : Theater : One Vision of Hours Before Patriot's Parting Words

November 06, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

COSTA MESA — Steve Martin is not the only playwright in the last year to imagine a meeting between two historical personages (Einstein and Picasso palavered in his "Picasso at the Lapine Agile"). On a far less playful note, David Stanley Ford gives us the final conversation in the life of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War hero whose famous last line, before he was hanged by the British, is a model of grace and conviction. "The Interrogation of Nathan Hale" depicts the final hour or so in the life of the man who said, finally, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." At least that's what he's reported to have said.

Having its debut on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory, the play is an erratic conversation between Hale and one of his captors, Capt. John Montresor, the man who brought news of Hale's execution to the American lines (there is evidence that this meeting took place). Montresor is also the man who reported Hale's famous last line, borrowed and improved on from an 18th-Century Joseph Addison tragedy "Cato" ("What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country").

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 8, 1995 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Cast box-- Due to an editing error, the cast box accompanying a review in Monday's Calendar of "The Interrogation of Nathan Hale" at South Coast Repertory mistakenly included a character--Bradley Whitford as Sebastian Bliss--who does not appear in the play.

Ford imagines the 21-year-old Hale, played with movie-star looks and Byronic earnestness by Matt Keeslar, to be a repressed and prim churchgoing idealist, someone used to being mocked for his seriousness.

The more interesting and much less moral character, Montresor is at first, at least, very difficult to read. As portrayed by Richard Doyle, who played a wonderful eccentric in South Coast Rep's "She Stoops to Folly," Montresor is a tic-ridden hyperactive, a professed coward and yet in his way quite a diligent soldier. His attempts to get Hale to disavow his cause are varied and imaginative. Under Diane Wynter's direction, apparently, the higher the number of tics, the more corruptive the individual. Doyle's face is quite busy; he indulges in bounteous eye popping and mouthly contortions. This might seem to indicate a man cut off from his true soul. Or it could just be questionable acting.

Montresor furiously tries to separate Hale from his ideals, betraying the young soldier's trust just as soon as he can squeeze something personal out of him. Through pure diligence, he gets the blushing Hale to admit to a rather turgid love story: a one-time affair with a New England schoolteacher, a woman as pure as himself. These two moral beings lost control of their passion and consummated their love, then vowed never to see each other again. Hale is worried that she may be pregnant.

This is the bait Montresor has been waiting for. Knowing Hale's inability to shun any moral action, he launches into a lecture on private responsibility, offering Hale a chance to win back his life and take care of the woman he loves. He calls Hale a coward for running away from his responsibilities. Montresor gets at his prisoner; at one point Hale rocks back and forth while frantically reciting from the Bible. But this is no cliffhanger, we all know what happens--after all, Hale has been reduced to but one line in history. He is the exemplar of public responsibility over all else, a model for a kind of passion that hardly exists at all anymore. "The Interrogation of Nathan Hale" reminds us that it once did exist, although it does not really make that passion alive on the stage.

Hale is not all that interesting a character. His vision of democracy is bloodless and pure and impossible ("In our new country it will be virtue that is rewarded. Not money or title"). Although Ford fills in a life for Hale beyond his professed idealism, it is a thinly imagined thing.

Ford achieves a real grace note at the end of his play by shifting our attention to the effects of this conversation on Montresor. Contact with Hale seems to have dignified Montresor. After 90 minutes of wheedling, using the body language of a Dickens' villain, Montresor straightens up and reports Hale's last line, which, according to the play, was not something literally said on the gallows but something Hale mentioned in his conversation with Montresor. Montresor then served it up, polished, as a kind of tribute to the spirit he was not clever enough to break.

Ford has opened the history books to imagine something unwritten in its pages. But he has barely breathed life into a character who remains a statue of virtue.

* "The Interrogation of Nathan Hale," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $26-$36. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 90 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Bradley Whitford: Sebastian Bliss

Richard Doyle: Capt. John Montresor

Matt Keeslar: Capt. Nathan Hale

Ron Rapp: Sergeant

A South Coast Repertory production. By David Stanley Ford. Directed by Diane Wynter. Sets Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Julie Keen. Lights Anne Militello. Sound Garth Hemphill. Fight direction Christopher Duval. Production manager Michael Mora.

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