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Salt Lake Acting Company production reimagines the last stand of Ulysses S. Grant

Published February 4, 2014 9:15 am

Stage • SLAC premieres a play about American superstars of the 1880s.
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History hasn't always been kind to Ulysses S. Grant, the great Civil War general and two-term president of the United States. He's often remembered as a drunk and blamed for the aftermath of the economic depression known as the Panic of 1873, neither fact verifiably true.

When playwright Elizabeth Diggs came across the two-volume "Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," she was surprised to find his memoirs to be so beautifully written.

But she found the story for her new play, "Grant & Twain," when she learned that writer Mark Twain went into debt to publish and sell Grant's memoirs.

Newspapers reported daily on Grant's health and the progress of the book, which he finished three days before he died. "The country was watching," says Diggs, who teaches playwriting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The playwright was intrigued to learn that the egotistical Twain, who adored his own fame, took such great financial risks to publish Grant's autobiography. He designed the books with three different bindings, took out multiple bank loans and leased all the printing presses in the region.

And then, in an act of Twain-sized marketing bravado, he hired thousands of Union veterans to sell the book door to door. "This amazing thing he predicted — that the book would be the biggest best-seller in American history — would turn out to be true," Diggs says.

Grant, played by film actor Marshall Bell, and Twain, portrayed by returning SLAC stage actor Morgan Lund, were American superstars of their time, two of the most famous people in the country. "Grant & Twain," which richly imagines the story of their unlikely friendship, will receive its world premiere at the Salt Lake Acting Company, Feb. 5-March 2.

The play is a character study of two men, opposites in personality, set against the historic backdrop of their time. "What solidified their friendship was a Ponzi scheme with Grant losing all his money," says director Keven Myhre, the co-executive producer of the theater company. "It always strikes me when we're dealing with the same things in a different time period."

"Grant & Twain" relies on period costumes and props but employs a contemporary storytelling style, with short scenes, a nonrealistic set and one character who stands in for all Union soldiers.

In the play, Mark Twain is 49, not the older sage with white hair and handlebar mustache wearing a white suit as represented by Hal Holbrook's one-man show. "I was told not to research Holbrook's Twain, because he's not that guy," says Lund, who praised how Diggs' play offers another view into post-Civil War-era history.

Bell, whose film credits range from "Birdy" to "Total Recall," characterized Grant as a broad, complicated man. "He presided over great acts of butchery but he was a sweet man," Bell says, and devoted to his wife, Julia ([played by Kathryn Atwood). "If you cry, you're going to cry about my relationship with my wife."

It's Bell's first paid stage role ever; he had a starring role in "Harvey" at age 16 in 1958, but that was a Denver high-school production. For years, he worked as a consultant to CEOs. He landed his first film roles at age 42, thanks to connections through his wife, an Academy Award-winning costume designer.

The play's war stories are all based upon historical facts, says Diggs, who is thrilled that the production is being produced during sesquicentennial celebrations of the Civil War. Diggs was familiar with productions at SLAC thanks to visits to town to see her daughter, documentary filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie ("Kick Like a Girl").

Embroidered into the historical facts are what the playwright imagined, that Twain coached Grant in the writing process. She wove those imaginings into the story of why the former general's aide, Adam Badeau (David Spencer), was dismissed from helping Grant write his autobiography.

The marks Spencer's return to the Salt Lake Acting Company stage, after the Nephi native moved to New York City several years ago. Longtime local theatergoers will remember Spencer's blockbuster performances, such as lawyer Roy Cohen in SLAC's 1995-96 production of "Angels in America" or as a narcissistic German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and more than 30 other characters in the 2006 show "I Am My Own Wife." Spencer and Lund last shared the SLAC stage in 2007's Moonlight and Magnolias."


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'Grant & Twain'

Salt Lake Acting Company presents the world premiere of Elizabeth Diggs' new historical play about the relationship between the country's most famous writer and the general who won the Civil War.

When • Previews Wednesdayand Thursday, Feb. 5-6; opens Friday, Feb. 7; continues through March 2; shows at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, and 1 and 6 p.m. Sundays.

Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $15-$42; with student, senior and under-30 discounts; 801-363-7522; saltlakeactingcompany.org.

Also • SLAC is asking theatergoers to bring donations of food, cleaning products, gift certificates and landscaping items to benefit Fisher House SLC, which houses families of veterans receiving medical care. More information about needed items are under the "How You Can Help" link at fisherhousesaltlakecity.com.

History • The theater company will host classroom readings and discussions of the play with West High School's U.S. history and literature classes.