Discord (The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy) opens on a set with a post-industrial feel, a tilted, granite stage rising from urban construction detritus, chairs strung high above, hanging at crazy angles. (Kudos to Bradley Gray). A hatch opens from the floor, allowing Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy to emerge, each in their turn. They are dressed in the clothes from their culture, out of place with the sparse, utilitarian furniture. We are given to believe this is some version of purgatory. As they become acquainted with one another, their unique personalities become clear. Jefferson is soft-spoken and rational, Dickens, narcissistic and effusive, Tolstoy robust and earthy. As they attempt to ascertain why they’ve been gathered, they discover that each has written their own version of the gospel. This gives rise to avid, often heated, dialectic and debate as they struggle to distill the essence of Jesus’ ministry and what it truly means to embody Christianity.
Playwright Scott Carter avoids predictable pitfalls. These three gentlemen are unlikely to stand in awe of one another, and this intriguing drama reveals details that more or less contradict what we might assume. Tolstoy was a member of the aristocracy, Dickens had trouble managing domestic bliss, and (despite his public denunciation of slavery) Jefferson’s private life was not always consistent with his ideology. In the realm of history and renown, these three may have been titanic, but Carter moves from broad strokes to the personal failings that mocked them in the dark hours. Just like the rest of us, Jefferson, Dickens and Tolstoy cleaved to a manifesto of morally and spiritually responsible behavior. And just like the rest of us, sometimes the strength of their dedication was tested.
It doesn’t feel like a reach to suggest that (just like in Fellini’s La Strada) Carter has divided humanity into the three elements: Intellect (Jefferson) Emotion (Dickens) and Soul (Tolstoy). There is a great deal of warmth, surprise, amusement and satisfaction to be found in Discord. Carter doesn’t deal in pandering or facile choices. What we get is a richly drawn, intelligent exploration of the discrepancy between what these men stood for, and what they struggled to evince in the process of living. As well as the nature of spirituality, Christianity, and what it means to genuinely care for the other. Carter connects us to these three protagonists by exposing them in all their flawed, aching, miserable humanity. As many of us have already learned, before we can move past our shadow, we must first learn to make friends with him. Like an evening together of drinking, Discord will chuckle with you, poke you, knock you out and buy you another drink.
Director Emily Scott Banks brings a subtle yet purposeful touch this challenging content. She raises the bar by refusing to be merely clever or cloying. She captures the tone of subdued urgency, of restless investigation. Ian Ferguson’s Jefferson is introspective and centered, while Jeremy Schwartz is bellicose, if somewhat self-conflicted, as Tolstoy. His contempt for privilege is undercut by his inability to put that part of his past completely behind him. John-Michael Marrs is shamelessly steeped in self-adoration as Charles Dickens. Somehow he manages to do this without alienating us, his chutzpah is so boyishly genuine (like Peter Pan) we forgive the insufferable.
WaterTower Theatre presents Discord: The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy, playing April 14th-May 7th, 2017. 15650 Addison Road, Addison, Texas 75001. 972-450-6232. www.watertowertheatre.org