In Quincy, Adams, Jefferson came alive again on 4th
QUINCY – Like the holiday, it only happens once a year.
For the 12th straight year, the National Park Service celebrated July 4th at the Adams National Historic Site by staging Howard Ginsburg’s “Jefferson and Adams: A Stage Play.”
The production chronicles the more than half-century friendship between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that began before the birth of the nation, when both of the Founding Fathers served in the Continental Congress, to July 4, 1826, when they both passed away within hours of each other.
The third person is the estimable Abigail Adams, who exchanged more than 1,000 letters with her husband during his frequent absences, and also found time to exchange notes with Jefferson while he and Adams weren’t talking. In all Jefferson and John Adams exchanged 300 letters, despite a dispute that lasted from 1801-1812.
The play was staged under a tent at the Beale House adjacent to the Old House at Peacefield, on Adams Street in Quincy, where John and Abigail lived and which was home to four generations of Adams’s.
Thankfully, Jefferson and both John and Abigail were lifelong, inveterate letter writers. The letters in question are cogent, heartfelt, thoughtful missives, the kind of letters where those writing chose just the right word, perhaps unconsciously knowing their work would be preserved for posterity, just as Jefferson’s writing in the Declaration of Independence has stood the test of 241 years.
Those letters have helped fuel not only the Ginsburg play, but other works such as a stirring biography of Adams by David McCullough, the HBO TV series starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail and even the musical “1776,,” in which John and Abigail Adams and Jefferson are all central characters.
In many ways the duo couldn’t be more different; Jefferson large in stature, a reluctant slave-owner, and the smaller Adams an ardent abolitionist. You have an aristocratic Southerner in Jefferson vs. a flinty New England farmer in Adams, who was a contrarian at heart.
And while they were both patriots and loved the new country they called home, Jefferson believed in a smaller federal government and more power to the states while Adams believed a strong central government was a must lest the state start behaving like their own private fiefdoms.
Things go south when Jefferson rails against what he sees as Adams’ overreaching in passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the relationship reaches its nadir when, after Jefferson denies Adam’s bid for a second term as president, Adams fills 22 vacant judgeships just before leaving office. John and Abigail leave Washington before Jefferson’s inauguration, leaving a wound that would not heal until a mutual friend – and, of course, politics – brings then back together
The cast couldn’t be better with three nuanced, compelling performances. Bill Barker has been portraying Jefferson in various forms and fashions, including at Colonial Williamsburg, for more than 30 years. His is an impressive physical presence, and he conveys his comfliction at being a slave-owner and his unyielding love for his doomed Martha, and the toll from the other personal losses: Four of his five childrren died.
Sam Goodyear as Adams is passionate, patriotic, a voracious reader and writer who would go on to serve his country, like Jefferson, in a multitude of ways. The certainty of his beliefs and opinions come through in Goodyear’s portrayal.
Abigail Schumann, herself a Colonial Williamburg re-enactor, brings both heart and spunk to Abigail. “All men would be tyrants if they could,” Abigail scolds John, remanding him only his proper behavior would provide for “our happiness … and therefore your own as well.”
In Act II, she bids to serve as am intermediary between her husband and Jefferson in their feud. She approaches Jefferson with an olive branch but ends up fiercely standing her ground in his defense.
By the time the two-hour production ends, the cast has spanned more than a half-century from the birth of a nation, war, presidencies won and lost, the time Jefferson and Adams spent serving the country together in Europe, and the losses of their beloved spouses.
Put this free event on your calendar for next July 4 If you are a student of history, or a lover of fine theater. You’ll be happy either way when two of American history’s most compelling characters come back to life once again.
The Adams National Historic Site and National Park Service production of Howard Ginsburg’s “Jefferson and Adams: A Stage Play.” At the Beale House, 181 Adams St., Quincy, on July 4.