The show begins even before the actors appear, with spectators entering an environmental space in which they sit on hassocks or benches yet are free to roam. The space is configured as a museum: On one wall are photos of Monticello; on another, the founding fathers; on the third, pictures of slaves. Above are the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Actors either weave in and around the audience or perform on raised platforms.
As for the alliance between Hemings and Jefferson, what was rumor in the 18th century turned into fact in the late 20th when DNA evidence from descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally's last son, delivered proof of the relationship. But even in Jefferson's time accusations were plentiful, and "Sally and Tom" begins with scandalmonger James T. Callender tacking up broadsheets that proclaim "President Jefferson in Bed With Black Concubine." Then James Madison explains the conflict among Federalists Washington, Hamilton, and Adams and Republicans Monroe, Jefferson, and himself. When Sally and Tom (a widower) finally appear, they've already started their affair. We do not witness their growing attachment or much else except a bit of cuddling. Just about everything is either told to us or underdeveloped.
Annie Roboff's music is serviceable. Fred Newman's lyrics find all sorts of opportunities to rhyme "Jefferson" with "declaration" (which requires a misaccent) and "hypocrisy" with "democracy." The central purpose of the production is codified at the end, when Hemings, Jefferson, Callender, Madison, and one of the lovers' descendants, Madison Hemings, unite for a blatant reminder that the American way has become one of privilege: "We are not yet free/There's still slavery," they sing.
Director Gabrielle L. Kurlander, though hampered by Newman's undramatic script, fluidly moves her cast around the space. Sean Patrick Gibbons is a hammy Callender, but Jacqueline Salit is simply inadequate as Madison. (David Nackman takes the role beginning Feb. 25.) As Sally, Ava Jenkins plumbs the character's combination of respect and frustration, while Adam Kemmerer invests Jefferson with righteous anger. But it's Brian D. Hills, as Madison Hemings, who fires up the proceedings, bringing believable complexity to a simplistic evening.
There's a story waiting to be dramatized about Hemings and Jefferson and our still-unresolved heritage of racism. Unfortunately, this isn't it.
Presented by and at Castillo Theater, 543 W. 42nd St., NYC. Feb. 17–March 25. Fri. and Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 941-1234 or www.castillo.org.