Grinder’s Stand is a gorgeous little show, reverberating on so many different levels that one scarcely knows where to begin describing it.
An obvious starting point is the plot, delving into the mysterious death of explorer Meriwether Lewis—leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition that charted the Louisiana Purchase, and a national hero at a time (1809) when a national hero could easily become president. Lewis, by then a governor of the new western territory, and all of 35 years of age, died from gunshot wounds at an obscure waystation called Grinder’s Stand along the Natchez Trace, en route to the newly built capital, Washington, D.C. Initially ruled a suicide, others have suggested that Lewis was murdered.
Playwright Oakley Hall III, who wrote the script in the ’70s then suffered a nearly fatal fall from a bridge, followed by over a decade of recovery, takes full advantage of the nexus of a larger-than-life hero and his sudden death under clouded circumstances. Woven in are spies and political intrigue, references to slavery and the Indian wars and several American presidents, international power games involving the British, who would soon bring on the War of 1812 and burn Washington, D.C. Hall also tackles Lewis’ purported addiction to laudanum, an opium derivative—in the course of the play, he is forced by a friend to go “cold turkey” and experiences an agonizing withdrawal.
The economical script is in verse—not rhymed; casual observers probably won’t notice the underlying organization. But Hall serves up some wonderful lines about continental exploration, marriage, nation building and more. Hall also invokes Jacobean drama—if you’re not a recovering English major, that means “ambition, corruption, revenge.”
The play’s second half is an appealing, impromptu love story involving Lewis and Mrs. Grinder, coming straight out of left field, the way that love often does. But Lewis’ death—foretold—is inevitable.
As Lewis, Gary Wright, a Foothill regular, gives one of his best performances (though I wanted a better view of the inner demons). David Silberman is notable as the government agent Smith. The rest of the cast is solid as well. The set is spare but smart; director Philip Charles Sneed appropriately guides the course with an air of fate.