The Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre opened local playwright Tom Hickman’s courtroom drama Forrest last weekend with a run date through March l4. All performances at The Adele Grage Cultural Center at 715 Ocean Blvd in Atlantic Beach. Call 249-7177 for reservations.
Does the name Nathan Bedford Forrest ring a bell? Well, if you have been keeping up with the local news, it should. There has been a lot of controversy whether a high school in west Jacksonville named after Nathan Bedford Forrest should have its name changed since Forrest was involved with the founding of the KKK and in the slave trading business.
This play covers some of this ground concerning Confederate General Forrest, but mainly revolves around an incident during the war at Ft. Pillow. The General was accused of acts against the rules of war for reportedly killing Yankee soldiers who surrendered as well as escaped slaves who were assisting the Yankee troops. The US government did gather a report on the event but it never went any further.
Tom Hickman has done extensive research on the supposed massacre, and brings this event to a fictional trial. He has created an entire court room atmosphere and since there was no actual trial, at the end, you the audience gets to vote guilty or not guilty, based on the testimony. I will reveal how, we the jury voted on opening night, since I don’t want to influence you and I am sure the vote will be different every night.
All the action in this two act, two hour play takes place in a Washington D.C. courtroom. Seven of the actors are on the stage the entire play and they include; David Boyer (the Judge), Bob Glazener (prosecuting attorney) Marcus Brooks (assistant prosecutor), Terry McCartney (clerk), Jack Barnard (defense attorney), and Thomas Russ (assistant to defense)
The other ten characters are witnesses for either the defense or the prosecution, and only enter take the oath, sit and are questioned by the attorneys and then immediately leave.
Director Carson Merry Baillie besides her top notch direction has done a marvelous bit of casting and I especially appreciated her putting some of Jacksonville excellent senior actors back on stage in these roles. You will see some real veterans of theatre in excellent cameos. They include Fritz Reinhardt, John Baillie, George Madera, Gary Rhodes, Bob Shellenberger and even the playwright himself, Tom Hickman. Rounding out the cast are two younger actors Andrew McCraney and Jeffery Wells also as witnesses. Gretta Russe is the only woman in the show and plays Forrest’s wife who testified as to the character of her husband.
No one is credited for the very authentic period costumes, mostly suits and some uniforms. Bob Miller who played General Sherman, provided his very own every elegant officer’s uniform.
Jack Barnard and Bob Glazener are terrific as the opposing attorneys. Both are very animated, with good vocal variety and able to convey the occasional humor in the script to keep it interesting at all times. Tom Fallon stepped into the role of Forrest a week before opening and is already letter perfect in his lines and looks like he has been doing the part for months. Physically his flowing gray hair matches his flamboyant mannerisms. Mr. Fallon cannot perform at the March l3th show, and ABET President Cliff Rigsbee, an excellent actor will play the “wizard of the saddle”, General Forrest.
Tom Hickman’s script is intelligent and well written but I asked myself, is it true to life as far as court room procedure is concerned? I spotted local actor/attorney Leonard Alterman in the audience and asked him after the show his opinion of the legal aspects. Alterman replied,”It is excellent.”
I do have two suggestions. The summation of the defense attorney (Barnard) is too long, at least for this play and we have heard most of what he says. I know in real life, lawyers go on and on, but it needs to be shortened in this case. Also the first act ends rather abruptly, with the statement, “the prosecution rests”. It would be better if the judge used his gavel, announced a recess of 15 minutes, and then the audience would know it was truly the end of the act.
I asked myself the question as I left the theatre, “should the local school board rename Nathan Bedford High School.’ From the facts I heard in this play, I would withhold answering until I can read more about this very interesting man who joined the army at age 40 as a private and rose to be a general. That is remarkable. This play requires you pay attention so that you can make a decision of guilty or not guilty based on what you heard and learn from the witnesses. You should see Forrest, a most interesting and thought provoking evening of theatre.