Thanks to the phenomenon that is Hamilton: An American Musical, learning about history while at the theater has never been more in vogue. Dallas Theater Center is giving a Texas spin to a theatrical civics lesson with its latest production, the world premiere play The Trials of Sam Houston, written by Aaron Loeb and directed by Kevin Moriarty.
Most Texans, if they think of him at all, know Sam Houston as the former governor of Texas and the namesake of the state’s largest city. In this play, his titular trials are both literal and metaphorical. Faced with the choice of staying true to Texas or to the United States on the eve of the state’s secession in 1861, Houston relates to his slave office clerk, Jeff Hamilton, of the time when he stood trial in Congress for attacking a Congressman.
The framing device for the play is an elderly Hamilton (Night Court’s Charlie Robinson) talking about his time with Houston to a female historian, Patricia Caras (Kate Wetherhead). But Robinson actually spends more of his time onstage playing Old Sam Houston, talking to the younger Hamilton (Ace Anderson), while Steven Michael Walters plays the younger Sam Houston during the time of his Congressional trial.
Confused yet? The play requires the utmost attention from its audience, as not only does it jump between the three time periods but it also features actors switching roles. Everyone except Walters plays more than one part, with five out of the eight actors tackling three different roles. Along with Houston, familiar historical names who make appearances include James K. Polk, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Francis Scott Key.
Moriarty keeps the proceedings intelligible with different costumes and, more importantly, abrupt lighting changes to signify moving to a different part of the story. After an early adjustment period to figure out who is playing what part, the story moves quickly and with a clarity that belies its complicated nature.
However, keeping track of the different settings and characters is only part of the job in watching the show. It is also heavy with speechifying as various people impart their thoughts on politics, proper decorum, and the ideals of the nation. While much of it is interesting, not everything connects, especially a long trial scene at the end of the first act.
Fortunately, the production is filled with familiar talented actors who know how to make the most of their roles. Five out of the eight members of DTC’s Brierley Resident Acting Company play prominent parts, including Anderson, Walters, Liz Mikel, Kieran Connolly, and Alex Organ. They’re matched by Robinson, Wetherhead, and DTC regular David Coffee.
The Trials of Sam Houston does a fine job illuminating a period of time that may not be familiar to many people. With outsized characters and actors who know how to play them, it’s much more entertaining than any history lesson you had in school.
Dallas Theater Center's production of The Trials of Sam Houston runs through May 13 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.