The fascinating story of George Washington's personal slave-valet, William Lee, who stood by him through the Revolutionary War and two terms as president, offers absorbing insights even to those for whom American history is an advanced hobby. Playwright-director Ted Lange's homework, poring over countless records and visiting New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Mount Vernon, is certainly evident. And though the show's breadth is commendable, its 22-scene, three-hour running time teeters on the brink of sensory overload. Despite a highly talented cast, many of the expository monologues are reminiscent of actors dramatizing obscure historical personages for school assemblies.
Still, this captivating ensemble, despite struggling against momentum-killing scene changes and a plethora of technical miscues, makes the experience worthwhile. The touching relationship between Adam Clark's titular role of Billy Lee and Gordon Goodman's Washington never skirts their true social statuses. Clark's interactions with other household servants demonstrate paternal concern, while Goodman tempers his stoic disposition with perfectly timed flickers of humor. Lange wisely stages Goodman's death scene with an understated tone, granting these actors the simplicity to demonstrate two men making peace with their lives' choices.
Supporting players include Connie Ventress as a disconcertingly flighty Martha Washington and Chrystee Pharris as her handmaid, whose desire for freedom results in an Act 2 escape subplot. Trisha Mann's portrayal of Margaret Thomas, a free black woman Billy Lee meets and eventually marries in Philadelphia, is a portrait of humble strength. Mann and Clark complement each other grandly in their tête-à-tête courtship. As for scene-stealing power, Ken Sagoes' characterization of the Washingtons' cook, Hercules, is unsurpassed. Whether chewing the fat with Billy Lee in the kitchen or humbly interacting with the first couple, Sagoes is flawless in his demeanor and delivery.
Along with known incidents, Lange's script dances briefly around historical theories of our country's first father that are absent from traditional history books. Raising the subject of a probable dalliance and illegitimate child with servant Venus Ford, played with gritty determination by Tiffany Adams, Lange leaves one wondering what the sequel to this miniseries might reveal.
Presented by and at the Horseshoe Theatre, L.A. Valley College, 5800 Fulton Ave., Van Nuys. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Feb. 3-Mar. 4. (310) 488-3949.